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 just like to share!

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

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

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

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

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

And so, here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

an accidental year-long reading project

When I was a kid, I got these book sets: four Hemingways, four Fitzgeralds, and four Faulkners. I read one Hemingway and liked it (I was 9 maybe, not real discriminating) so I read the other three next. Then I did that with the Fitzgeralds, and then I tried but was too young to be able to figure out the Faulkners. The sad effect of that project was that I just cannot tell you which of the Hemingways was the one where the guy died alone in the mud under the bridge. (All of them, I think…) Which Fitzgerald was it where the rich people were really sad, even though they drifted from one party to another? (All of them, I think.)

KOKSo I have this tendency anyway, but this year something amazing and dramatic happened. I met Karl Ove Knausgaard, and then I met Elena Ferrante. There was a lot of buzz around both, wildly positive (and voluminous) reviews, an occasional snark, but I was curious and willing. Both were multiple volumes, and both were written in another language, as it turned out (Norwegian and Italian). I started the first Knausgaard and hit the middle and lost steam, but a bit later I picked it up again and that was that. I read that whole book, then the second, then the third, then the fourth, and then I wished with all my heart that the translator would get off his ass and get the others done. (A total of 1,871 pages…. [link to the series on Amazon])

ferranteThe same thing happened with the Ferrante, in its own sidling way. I was put off by the covers, which look old-fashioned and uninteresting, but I picked up the first book and that was that. Those I consumed, the way an alcoholic throws back the first drink of the day. I had to read to stop the shakes, man. (A total of 1,664 pages…. [link to the series on Amazon])

I didn’t really realize the extreme similarity between the two until I was in Ferrante Book 3, I think, but Knausgaard and Ferrante had undertaken exactly the same project. Both sought to intimately portray their inner lives from childhood through adulthood, and to capture their development. These aren’t journals, they aren’t diary entries, they both transform those details into something far greater, something that reaches for universal. Ferrante is older (I think, she remains anonymous) so her books took her character through an older age than Knausgaard, who is only 47. Knausgaard’s books are more openly memoir, partly because Ferrante will not reveal her identity, but I’ve read an interview with her in which she admits they’re drawn from her life to a large degree. And after all, she gave her main character her own name, Elena. There’s also the issue of male story vs female story in this project, and while I thoroughly enjoyed Knausgaard and can’t wait for the next volume [Goodreads review of volume 4 here), the Ferrante was just tectonic for me. I wrote about it in my Goodreads review, here.

When James Joyce published Ulysses, there was a sense that no more literary novels could be written, because he had taken the form out to its farthest edge and done something so startling that anything that came after could only be derivative. He had portrayed one day in the life of a man in its extraordinary complexity. The kind of novelists I prefer to read are those who are grappling with this issue — portraying the truth of what it is to live. I’ve never been interested in potboilers, or genre fiction, or even heavily plot-driven novels. Nothing against them, they’re just not for me.

What fascinates me, and what is so hard to capture well and accurately in a novel, is the big mess of what it is to live in the world. What it is to wrestle with yourself, your ambitions, your needs, your desires, the world, other people. What it is to think about all those things, too. Thinking is chaotic, a bit of focus and then a wandering, then another thought intrudes, that reminds you of something else, back to your focus, interruption, thread of focus lost. We are all essentially contradictions, too, whether it’s over a period of time, or whether we are ambivalent, or whether we change and grow. I want this I want its opposite. I believe this and this contradictory thing. I am this and I am also its shadow. And our shadow! That lives inside us too, in corners, and how do we negotiate with it? What kind of deals do we make, what kind of games do we play, when and how do we indulge it, what horrors do we anticipate if it gets out? We do things we know we shouldn’t, we do things and we don’t know why, we don’t do things we want to do, or know we should. How do you capture that complexity in a novel?

Apparently you do it in multiple very long volumes. I’m the kind of reader who would’ve purposely undertaken this as a project, reading both series of books—binge reading, I guess—but this happened purely by accident. I can’t believe it I didn’t realize it until the seventh book out of eight, but the books are immersive, because they’re both very good at capturing interiority. They’re both very good at including the granular bits of life (Knausgaard more than Ferrante, who focuses a little more on the emotional/psychological). Because the fact is, that’s the bulk of our life. A frightening amount of our lives, if you think about it, is just going on inside our heads. Even when our bodies are moving around in space, doing things glorious or troubling, interacting with other bodies, think about what’s going on in your head: thoughts about what you’re doing, fears, anxieties, emotion, determining or experiencing meaning, or its absence. An overwhelming amount of our lives is captured by the granular boring details. Emptying the trash. Putting away groceries. Time at work. Meetings. Driving, showering, sleeping. Trying to get him to do the things you keep asking him to do. Wasting time.

I’ve got no ending for this post, I’ve just been thinking about it and needed to get it out of my head. Read Ferrante. Most people end up thinking somehow she was writing about them. I did. You might.

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.

the deal about essays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

brooding

broodingIt’s gone so quiet here on the blog, in large part because I am in flux between old and new. I’m brooding……but the egg-sitting meaning, not the dark glowering mood meaning. I am sitting in quiet, listening for the creative consequence of this enormous change that has happened to me. As time passes I am feeling more confident in the shift, more solid about it. Of all the things I’ve been in my life, I’d say “professional changer” has been central. Some of the changes took place very slowly and required a lot of incremental shifts and constant effort, which is not to say that the change always moved forward. Plenty of my changes took that two steps forward, one step back route.

Plenty of other changes were short-lived, or visited and revisited and revisited and never really took hold the way I wanted them to. (Which, of course, begs the question of ‘want.’) I’ve only been making these changes since June, but for the last four months there haven’t been any steps backwards and the pull of the old has faded to the point where I can barely see it there, receding behind me. In a strange way, this shift has been extraordinarily simple, like an insight. The cool thing about insight is that it feels effortless, whole, complete — all at once things look different, and you can no longer remember why it wasn’t always this obvious.

Yesterday I had lunch with my gorgeous, luscious, beautifully creative friend Traci. I was telling her that I have nothing to write anymore, and she smiled and said that I will. And I believe her — in part because I trust her, and in part because I feel it myself. I’m beginning to think that what’s ahead in this next stage of my life will look very different. My subject matter before this shift was my own story, but I am beginning to think that my subject matter is moving toward straight non-fiction. It’s beginning to be exciting as I listen hard for what’s coming.

One thing that’s coming — to gently segue — is lots of great travel and times with friends! In the little period of time I’m back in Austin I have so many things lined up with friends and family to stretch out my celebration of my birthday. O I cannot wait for that. I think birthdays ought to be properly and joyfully celebrated — mine and yours! I’m so glad I get to have a whole week of chances to be grateful for another year twirling around the sun. Then a 4-day weekend in Chicago to see Marnie and Tom, then a few days later back to NYC and then a few days after that, we’re off to southeast Asia again.

the morning alms round in Luang Prabang -- my Thanksgiving morning will begin by helping feed the monks
The morning alms round in Luang Prabang — my Thanksgiving morning will begin by helping feed the monks
a great alley of food vendors in Luang Prabang -- my Thanksgiving dinner this year!
A great alley of food vendors in Luang Prabang — my Thanksgiving dinner this year! A heaping plate of food, $1.25, but with a BeerLao it comes to $2. 
sidewalk eating and drinking in Hanoi
Sidewalk eating and drinking in Hanoi. This is just a little cafe on a side street; on big streets, the entire sidewalk as far as you can see is filled with these little stools and tables, and people eating pho, banh cuon, bun cha, chao ca, bun rieu cua, and other stuff I don’t know but want to eat immediately.

Between now and the end of the year, I have so many things going on I may still be brooding, percolating, developing. I have a couple of ideas starting to press on my mind, and I may be hitting you up for some help. In the meantime, I’m also starting to think about goals for my next year. More on that process very soon!

xoxo

nourishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

finally me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the day before

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

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

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

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

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

stepping off the world

careA couple of days ago I wrote about how much I have missed feeling the easy joy I’ve always felt. In a very wise comment, Cyndi asked how long it’s been since I nurtured myself. Between my failing memory and the recent events of my life, I can’t remember.

And so today, when I finish my work for the day, I am stepping off the world for a long couple of days. I won’t be online, I won’t be hanging out with people, I won’t be dashing around, I won’t be doing fun things with other people (or for other people, unless it’s an emergency). My mind needs time just to settle, to let the silt drift down to the deeps and the water become still and clear. My mind needs space and time to drift, wander, go wherever it goes. My body needs good food (I’ll make this and this and this), some care-taking, stretching and walking. I’ll get my hair cut late Saturday afternoon, the only social thing I’ll do. I’ll go to the grocery store after I finish work today and buy really good, fresh food and plan to make some luscious meals for myself. I’ll pick up some bath salts. I’ll clean my house because it makes me feel so happy to have it clean and tidy and that always lifts my spirits. My plan is to spend as much of it in silence as I can. No television, certainly, and if I listen to music it’ll be quiet music. Classical guitar maybe, cello.

I’ll write — it’s been too long since I wrote on the big projects I’m working on, and nothing makes me feel better than to go to that place. I won’t write here, an easy distraction. I’ll read. I’ll sleep. I’ll just be as good to myself as I can and feed myself in all the ways I need.

And then next week it all begins again — times with friends, appointments, work, emails, writing here, busy busy busy. Oliver will be born very soon and I need to be as good and strong as I can be so I can give Katie as much help as I possibly can. She’ll be tired, and it’ll be best if I’m not.

rebootSaturday here is supposed to be beautiful — 75 and sunny skies with a few clouds. Rainy on Sunday. Two perfect days, in such different ways. I hope you have time to rejuvenate yourself this weekend, if that’s what you need. It’s the thing I always forget to do (thanks again Cyndi for hitting that nail right on the head), and it’s time to hit that reboot button. Here I go……

xo

more on writing and therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

writing therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a piece of writing I like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

That's Will.
That’s Will.

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

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

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inner voice, take two

A week ago I wrote about my sneering, contemptuous inner voice that does its best to knock me down (“Shut the hell up”). I heard from so many people on email, and I know it’s a very common experience. And maybe it’s not even born of a parent or teacher, maybe it’s just our own fears hard at work. For many of us, it often works. It often stops us. In a comment on that post, something occurred to me and I have to tell you that it seems to have worked. Perhaps the ground was fertile and I was just ready for it to work, but it worked.

deeply beautiful Dixie
deeply beautiful Dixie

You’ve already met Dixie, and if you look at or leave comments you’ve read her words to me, over and over. At times, you may have even thought come on, Dixie. Dixie loves me unconditionally, and sees me in the very best light, and believes I can do anything, and always gives the benefit of the doubt to me in any ambiguous situation. I have never experienced anything like it — perhaps few people do (unless you know Dixie). This is just how Dixie loves people, which does not in any way diminish the way she sees me or what she says to me; in other words, it’s not just Dixie being kind of blindly positive. Oh no, she is human like the rest of us and has her own little grudges — though it’s a teeny tiny teeny tiny list, and you basically get on the list by hurting someone she loves and not stopping. She’s like her mother in her extraordinarily generous love. Objectively, and obviously, I am not all that Dixie sees and says, but isn’t it wonderful to have someone who sees you like that? Dixie is the first person in my life who has loved me in that way.

angelSo in commenting on my earlier post, it all at once hit me: Let Dixie be the other voice in my head! My thought was that there would be a debate in my head: the unreasonably negative vs the unreasonably positive. I thought that would help me knock the cruel voice away.

That’s not what happened, at all. I’m actually shocked by it. Having Dixie’s voice in my head has replaced the other voice. There is no argument, no debate, no ghost of a sneer. It’s just Dixie’s distinctive voice saying, “You can do it! I believe in you, you are so good!” And even though I may disagree, I think well, if she believes in me that much I have to at least try! It has been transformative for me. I don’t feel scared, I don’t stop myself from writing, I don’t stop myself from trying the things that are inevitably going to bring rejection because that’s the nature of it. I am not afraid of the inevitable rounds and rounds and rounds of rejection because I know the voice in my head will encourage me and still believe in me.

I’ll tell you, it’s one of the most remarkable things that has ever happened to me. The simplicity of it, the way it happened instantaneously and [apparently] completely. We’ll see, maybe that cruel voice will find a new hurt spot in me and use it against me, but Dixie is pretty mighty. I wouldn’t want to go up against her. I’ve spent more than half the years of my life in therapy, so I kind of have an expectation that getting rid of deep-seated hurts and problems requires months and years of hard hard work. And maybe I have done the months and years of hard hard work that made this thing happen so easily, I don’t know. But it’s as dramatic and switch-flipping as the moment of forgiveness that washed over me in a Quaker meeting in 1989.

Will it work for you, to incorporate the actual voice of someone in your life who believes in you? I don’t know, obviously. But if it’s never occurred to you (as it had never occurred to me), you might give it a try. If you are lucky enough to have someone like Dixie in your life, maybe it will be easy. If there’s someone who believes in you and loves you but there are other aspects to the relationship too, then maybe you’ll have to edit the tape before you load it into the machine. I don’t know. Maybe it won’t work for you at all. I just wanted to share my experience.

Tuesday Tuesday, hope it’s a good one. xo

the sadness of insecurity

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

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

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

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

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

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

the universe responds

waterLately — I don’t know exactly for how long — I’ve been submerged. Not deep, not in the black water, just underneath the surface, close enough to pop my head up and take a breath. Partly it’s what we’re all dealing with this year, a really harsh winter, one storm after another, exhausting our resources inside and out. I need some sun — you do too, I’m sure. And partly it’s because there has been a lot of hard stuff happening to me and to people I love. Nothing fatal, and even the hard stuff seems to be finding its level. My dear friend who had a huge health scare is going to be OK. And so his wife is going to be OK and I, his friend, will be OK. One family member came through a really rough patch with a great decision. Scary, yes, but the right decision and the relief that brings. Good people die for stupid and sad reasons and the world is just like that.

And so yesterday I was again home alone all day, with some work (thank you universe, for a little run of little jobs now could I get a bigger one please?), and just feeling under the water. I could see the sky, but it was cloudy. I ate some beans. I was not feeling all that great.

But then my phone rang and it was Dixie, who has been sending me these little loving emails every single morning — I see what she’s doing there — but it was Dixie on the phone. And if you’ve been around these parts for even a day, you know what kind of call it was. It was a Dixie call, and how could all that love do anything but lift my spirits? Such a sweet surprise, and such a spirit lifter.

And then I ate some more beans. Then I decided maybe I’d make one cupcake — you can do that, you know. One cupcake. No frosting. Just a tiny little bit of cake to go with a cup of tea. And I kept working. Seven o’clock. Eight o’clock. Nine o’clock. Nine thirty. And then my phone rang.

Who would call me at 9:30? The caller ID — my heart stopped, is my friend in some kind of trouble? We thought he’s out of the woods. But no, no trouble, just his wife — my beloved friend — calling to tell me something. To encourage me, to share an opportunity with me. “We’ll do it together, let’s do it together. And if it works for one of us but not the other, we will be so happy for each other. Let’s do it. You should do it,” she said. “You are so good.”

yes

There I’d been, feeling weighed down and burdened and not so good. You know the blues’ll do that to you. You should do it. You are so good.

We both reassured ourselves that of course we won’t get in, we don’t even need to worry a tiny bit about how to pay the hefty tuition — it won’t matter, we won’t have to worry about it. But let’s do it anyway, I will if you will. You are so good. (She is so so good….) And so we decided that we will do it anyway, we will say YES to ourselves and that cracks the universe open every time we do it. Say yes. Say YES.

I remind myself of an old joke. A guy is stranded by rising flood waters, so he climbs up on the roof of his house. The waters rise. Some other guy comes along in a rowboat and tells the guy to get in, but the guy says, “No, the Lord is going to save me.” So the rowboat guy moves along and still the waters rise. Another guy comes by in a bigger boat, “No, the Lord is going to save me,” he says again. The waters are rising, he climbs up on the chimney. A helicopter comes by and drops down a ladder — “Climb up!” the rescuer shouts. “No, no, the Lord is going to save me.” The waters rise, the guy drowns. He gets to heaven and says, “God, why didn’t you save me?” And God said, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what  else do you want me to do?”

Look at all these people swimming up to me, throwing ropes my way, calling out to me with so much love, with so much tenderness, with so much care. It never ever ceases to amaze me the way humans can be, the way we keep an eye on each other, the way we extend our love again, and again, and again. The way you might feel a little bit sinky and then what do you know, someone calls out of the blue to say she loves you. And then what do you know, someone calls out of the blue to tell you that you are good. Some days that’s just exactly what you need to hear. Thank you my darling Dixie, and my beautiful Peggy, and Traci for popping in with love, and Becci for leaving notes with love, and Marnie for sharing her life good and confusing with me, and today for the huge joy of time with Katie.

Yes universe, YES. How can I say anything but yes.

[and for you, a little prezzie. I brought this poem to my poetry group on Tuesday night, and it’s kind of dazzling. It’s by Christian Wiman, published in his collection Hard Night (2005, Copper Canyon Press). Read it aloud:

Rhymes for a Watertower

A town so flat a grave’s a hill,
A dusk the color of beer.
A row of schooldesks shadows fill,
A row of houses near.

A courthouse spreading to its lawn,
A bank clock’s lingering beat.
A gleam of storefronts not quite gone,
A courthouse on the street.

A different element, almost,
A dry creek brimming black.
A light to lure the darkness close,
A light to bring it back.

A time so still a heart’s a sound,
A moon the color of skin.
A pumpjack bowing to the ground,
Again, again, again.

good good good

Sometimes during or after a period of trials and troubles, the good stuff gallops in, and sometimes you have to squint your eyes toward the horizon to see those little puffs of dust that tell you the good stuff is coming. I’ve had some of both and I am so grateful for them.

Saturday and Sunday on the Llano River with friends Karyn and Mike, who were such gracious friends — especially when I kept crapping out on the Sunday bike ride and had to keep stopping to lie on the ground with my feet up to keep from puking and dying. They tried so hard to keep me from feeling as ashamed as I felt, but the puking and dying feeling made it hard to hear. There was a lot of good food, kayaking, meeting new people, more good food, the biking I crapped out on, and hours and hours of easy conversation with two wonderful people who made me feel entirely welcome. Click any circle to see the full-size photo (then hit the escape button to come back here). Really gorgeous.

So that was unambiguously good. And my friend with the potentially awful health trouble, such hopeful news it’s just wonderful. And loved ones’ troubles, settling into themselves so decisions can be made that are the best choice. That last one’s a puff of dust on the horizon, I think it’s coming and it’s a nice little pony.

And I didn’t have nearly as much time to write yesterday as I’d hoped, but I finished the first chapter. (!) I think it’s good, and I’m not going to look back at it but rather keep going. I didn’t want to quit, I could’ve kept writing, easily, but there are other things to do, like piecing a block of Oliver’s quilt, or at least piecing one-fourth of a block.

puffs of dust on the horizon. horses -- good guys or bad? have to wait and see, but i'm betting on the good guys.
puffs of dust on the horizon. horses — good guys or bad? have to wait and see, but i’m betting on the good guys.

And there, on the far distant horizon — what is that? Looks like the tiniest little puffs of dust, not sure what it is, could be an incredible literary opportunity for me. Work, yes, with pay, yes, and credit, yes. Details to be worked out, not about to say more about it than this, may not work may work crazily may work beautifully just don’t know. Tiny tiny puffs of dust.

Today is my Big Daddy’s birthday, borned January 20, 1909 (as it is recorded in the family Bible). He died in 1971 and I can miss him still if I slow down a little bit. It is also Kiki’s birthday, my sweet little father-in-law who walked me down the aisle when I married Jerry in 1979. Two of the men in my life who loved me so much, both saving me in different ways by loving me. Sometimes you hit the man jackpot. Happy Monday, y’all. xoxo

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. 🙂

exodus

One of the most handsome Jewish men I've ever seen. I'd have followed him into Israel, no problem.
One of the most handsome Jewish men I’ve ever seen. I’d have followed him into Israel, no problem.

Over the last few days I’ve received notes from a number of friends saying the same thing: “I won’t be on Facebook for a while/anymore.” The timing was funny in each case because I’ve been preparing to say the same thing. In thinking about the coming year, and my intent to focus more on writing, I’ve been a little overwhelmed trying to figure out where I will find the time. If only I didn’t have to work (if only I had some work, yikes!!) it would all be a piece of cake, but alas. And being in NYC 11 days/month introduces some difficulties in terms of having full control of my time, and then being back home in Austin gets busy because I need to see all my people here, too. With my beautiful little grandson Oliver arriving in March, I need to make his quilt and baby stuff, I’ll be giving Katie a baby shower, and I’ll knit his Christmas stocking. And then spend as much time holding him as Katie will let me. 🙂 Lots of stuff to do, and only 24 hours in a day.

I’ve been looking hard at where I spend my time, and sadly I waste way too much of it. Way too much. And how do I waste it? Like most people, I think — online. And what that means is Facebook. And so I will be taking a leave of absence, even just those “short little check-ins.” I know me — just checking means a huge deep time suck.

For the most part, I enjoy Facebook — especially since I learned how to block certain things from my feed. Life became much more pleasant for me when I no longer had to read gun-totin’ rants. I unfriended (oops, first typed ‘unfiended’) ex-family members who were frankly nuts, and ex-acquaintances who were disgusting. My feed was lovely, really, filled with great stuff about books and movies and film, and funny or poignant updates from people I love. What’s not to enjoy? Except with that endless constant loop, there’s just always one more thing to see and then I’ve lost a day.

What do you want to do with your life? Look at how you spend a day, an afternoon, an hour — THAT is what you are doing with your life. I don’t want to spend my life watching a Facebook loop. I need to work, I want to spend real time with my real people, I want to write, I want to walk and eat well and be mindful. And so I will be bidding Facebook adieu. I’m sure I’ll miss it terribly at first, but we’re parting as friends and I will be busy.

Of course I will still be writing here, most days, just as usual. When I travel, I’ll be leaving the travel blog link here too. I just plan to be doing a lot of other writing too, and I hope to have news of it to share here. So the Queen is still in the palace, she’s just not on Facebook that’s all. I’ll still be putting photos on Instagram (http://instagram.com/lori_pillbugs) and I’m collecting some stuff on Pinterest, finally (http://www.pinterest.com/pillbugqueen/), so it’s not as if I’m abandoning everything. Just Facebook, really. I will, though, keep feeding the posts to my Facebook page for this blog (friend me here if you like:  https://www.facebook.com/Queen.Pillbug) because that’s automatic and doesn’t require me to venture onto Facebook.

Are you planning a similar exodus? Do you have social media-related plans of some kind? I think it’s in the wind.

writing

In my line of work, I get the impression that everyone is writing a book. And if they’re not actually writing a book, they could write a book, they have a book in them, but they’re just too busy. As I’ve written here repeatedly, I hold writers in the highest esteem of all, along with other artists. And excellent writers — especially writers of literary fiction, who transform specific stories of life in a way to enlarge my own little life, in a way to make me understand my world better — well, those people live on an Olympian plane, as far as I am concerned.

The bad thing about exalting writers, this art form, is that I keep it so far out of my own reach. I long to write something more than my little indulgent blog posts. I long to transform, elevate, share. But unlike so many of my clients who have the ballsy courage to write whole books despite having a minimum of talent (beyond the perseverance it takes to write a whole book, which ain’t nothing!), I do not have that kind of courage or belief in myself.

But this isn’t anything new. I was talking with my friend Dee about this on Tuesday, about longing to create something new in the world but feeling too clenched, too restricted. I’ve always been a great copier, a greater follower-of-directions. In pre-school, while all the other children played, I sat in the shade and embroidered pillowcases, flowers and butterflies stamped with iron-on transfers. The first quilt I ever made followed a pattern and it was very well made, technically (I am an excellent technician); my handstitching was small and uniform, the whole thing was hand pieced and hand quilted and I didn’t know I shouldn’t start with a pattern like this:

my quilt
I showed this at my monthly quilt guild meeting and the women said, “You can’t make a quilt like that for your first quilt!” so I named it “Ignorance is bliss and I am in hog heaven.”

It’s a bad picture, taken in the early 1980s with a cheap camera, but it was a really beautiful quilt! Not my design, because I am “not creative.” I’m a very good follower. I knit beautiful things, like the shawl I knitted for Marnie when she got married:

here it is, blocking
here it is, blocking

I’m great at following a pattern. I am creative — or rather, I have a creative impulse. I used to make all our clothes, I handsmocked little dresses for the girls, I had a couple of big looms and a gorgeous spinning wheel, I spun wool and cotton and used natural dyes to create beautiful yarns that I’d knit or weave into various things. There’s almost nothing I can’t do with my hands. I made bobbin lace (and made the bobbin lace pillow too), tatted, crocheted. Assembled a very nice woodworking shop in the garage and made small pieces of furniture and stuff with Will when he was little. Really, I have a good creative impulse.

But to face a piece of paper, blank, and have to bring something out of myself (that isn’t just some personal essay, a kind of musing about whatever I am thinking) scares me to death. I feel wholly inadequate, unable to get the first sentence out. Sure, I wrote a master’s thesis (~300 pages) and a dissertation (~400 pages), but those followed a straightforward form and I had research and data. The story was there, already, all I had to do was put it in the APA-approved sentences.

I’ve been contacted by a company about writing pieces that will be picked up by other (“major”) publications, and I fought myself to stop from saying, “No, but I will copyedit what you write!” “Yes, but sorry, not right now because it’s the holidays, sorry.” “Gosh I’d love to but I ….”  Instead, I said, “Yes, I would love to.” It’s non-fiction writing, and my deepest longing is to write literary fiction, but perhaps doing any kind of hired writing would tell my scared inner self that I can do it. My gorgeous friend Traci wants to publish some of my personal pieces in a book, and once the holidays pass I am going to get them together for her. I am. Maybe 2014 will be my year. Maybe I should decide that. I think I will.

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.

Books and Authors

writerOnce I was talking to my therapist in New York about my anxieties about calling myself a writer. Why, she asked, why is that so frightening? You write every day. Aside from legitimacy issues (Don’t I have to be published to call myself a writer? Don’t I have to have earned even a penny to call myself a writer?) my biggest worry was the absolute reverence I have for writers, and for books. Writers are Writers, books are Books. Holy things, holy people, holders and purveyors of the truth at times. Creators of things that save, transform, redeem people. can’t do that.

Again and again I read interviews with writers who say that they write what they want to read, that they write to please themselves. I never really got that before (I mean, I did, but I didn’t). Surely they are writing with other readers in mind too, or their publishers, or sales. But yesterday I started to get a different sense of what they mean. Yesterday I wrote about Marian’s comment about my writing, and how it’s full of sensory details and feelings. Well, that writing pleases me, when I do it. It pleases me a lot, it’s getting at something I want to get at. If I am ever able to write a very long story, or even a book, perhaps it doesn’t have to save people’s lives, perhaps it doesn’t have to redeem a little girl hiding under a bed somewhere, perhaps it doesn’t have to change someone’s life or give them a map to a new land. Perhaps it can just give someone else some deep pleasure. Perhaps it can just transfer the feelings and images and story out of my head and into another’s. Maybe it’ll just make someone feel happy for a while, maybe someone will just underline a sentence or passage and find it beautiful. And that would be awesome.

Whenever I’m wanting or needing to write but I feel stumped, or blocked, I pull out one of my favorite Anne Lamott exercises: short assignments, AKA the 1″ frame. (The link I included there also includes another great point she makes, which is to purposely write shitty first drafts.) But the 1″ frame idea is that all you have to write is what you can see through a 1″ picture frame. Just that. Just fill that frame. I literally do that, which is why my little writings take the form they do. I’m just trying to peek through that little 1″ frame and tell you what I see. (Read Bird by Bird if you want to write; it’s my favorite of Lamott’s books, but it’s also my favorite writing book by anyone.)

I may not write a book (or Book) and I may never be an Author, but I do so desperately want to write. Last night I met with Jeff, my health coach, and he asked me to describe my ideal life (as it relates to this eating issue I’m working on with him). I said that I’d like to be more balanced and not have all my energy going to hating myself if I’ve got extra weight on, or thinking I’m an OK person if I’m skinny. I’d like to take all that energy away from that silly seesaw and be able to put it to better use, to creative production. Because you cannot imagine just how much energy I spend in this silly way. I’m going to try to fill a whole bunch of 1″ frames, and some of them may be about boring stuff like onions and some may be random but I hope at least one needs another 1″ frame next to it, then another, then another. E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

This post is disjointed and probably seems filled with slightly disconnected points, but that’s OK. I’m working something out and this post was for me.

what I don’t know about writing….

Writing….could fill the Internet. I don’t know the first thing about writing (shhh, don’t tell my clients!). I placed out of composition classes in high school and college, I’ve never taken a single creative writing course of any kind, and the books about writing that I’ve read are more focused on creativity than on how to write. I have read a lot, of course, and almost entirely good stuff, beautifully written, deeply written, and you do learn something by osmosis, but not as much as you’d hope. Or rather, I don’t seem to have learned by osmosis.

Every other week, I have an hour-long writing session over Skype with my friend Marian, who lives in New Jersey. When I lived in Manhattan, she and Susan and I met once a month to do some spontaneous writing together. (We didn’t, actually; mostly we just caught up with each other’s lives.) Writing with Marian is so good for me, for a lot of reasons. I look forward to seeing her beautiful face every other week, she’s extremely wise and has helped me enormously, and she’s a wonderful — and very different than me — writer. She writes with dreamy images, deep metaphors, and a poetic voice. She’s also a very good listener, so when I read something I’ve written, her feedback often points out things I hadn’t noticed. Each meeting, we alternate bringing something we wrote and providing three writing prompts. This morning, it was my turn to bring something I wrote and she provided the prompts. Since I hadn’t written anything in the last few days, I read the piece I wrote after I spent the evening with my son Will. If you saw this on facebook, I’ve lightly edited it, but if you aren’t my facebook friend, here is a little piece I wrote:

The host placed me at the smallest table, almost too tiny for one person to eat comfortably, but it sat two for dinner. The restaurant was special in that New York City Meatpacking District way – just don’t look too closely at the edges of the floor, in the corners, where the very old tiles butt up against the crumbling walls; don’t crane your neck and look up at the old ratty ceiling; wedge a sugar packet underneath one leg of your wobbly uncomfortable chair; and hold your purse on your lap. Since it was only 7pm on a Thursday night, the restaurant was crowded and noisy, but it hadn’t yet reached its place-to-be-seen stride for the evening. That scene was still hours away.

I was early, as always, because I’m always early, and because I was eager to see my son. He had not spoken to anyone in our family for almost 10 months, since he was with us in Austin for my granddaughter’s funeral, his first niece, my first grandchild. We clung to each other and fought with each other then, like you do during a time of terrible tragedy – fighting over nothing, tense words sent just to relieve the awful stress and pressure of despair. Then we all returned to our now-stained lives and slowly the weeks passed with no communication from him, until the weight of months became too heavy for him to lift. I was nervous.

And then there he was, my beautiful curly-haired son, tall and thin and elegant in his black suit and white shirt. As he came closer I could see his suit was cheap and saggy, the shoulders broken, his shirt stained and not crisp, his eyes old, and his jaw sagged more than it should on a 26-year-old boy. He’d been promoted to manager, he told me, and this was his new uniform. The move from waiter to manager showed up in a substantial reduction in his income and the addition of a black jacket. We clutched each other, my embrace probably more frantic than his, and then we sat. “The maître-d thinks you’re sweet, ma,” he told me. “And pretty, too.”

Our server came to the table and was startled to see Will sitting there. “Ah, Will, she told me she was ‘meeting Will’ and I thought ‘well good for you, I’m meeting my brother Robert later.’” We all laughed. “I didn’t know it was you.” He leaned down near Will’s ear, and Will turned his head away from me to speak in a low voice, ordering wine for our table. He turned his body slightly away because he couldn’t cross his long legs underneath the low table. “So how’re things, ma? You’re rocking the Amelie look, I love your hair.”

We ordered our food, nibbled the bread, drank our glasses of Sancerre, shared my salmon and then a strawberry shortcake, and talked. We talked about his hard life, we talked about mine. I told him how much I miss him, and our eyes filled with tears we blinked away. Although he said no one would need our table, tiny as it was, we decided to walk, neither of us really ready to head back uptown to our disappointing and stressful lives. “Let’s hit the High Line, yeah?” he said. “I’ve got a song I want you to hear.”

So we left the restaurant and wandered in the soft night to the stairs that led up to the elevated park. The late summer humidity turned the night into El Greco velvet, dark and thick, distorting the lights in the windows overlooking the park, the windows tourists gape at because people in that hotel often stand naked, for shock and effect. The air was thick but the breeze off the Hudson River was cool, and we turned right to walk uptown along the planked sidewalk, passing people sitting on benches surrounded by billowy grasses, passing noise on the street below. Will pulled out his phone and a pair of cheap headphones – “Here, put this in your left ear,” he said as he put the other bud in his right ear, “while I get the song on YouTube.”

I linked my left arm through his right elbow and let the rest lose its edges, become fuzzy and indistinct. No longer worrying about the details of the thing threatening me or Katie’s infertility struggles or Tom’s difficulty in finding a job, I just walked with generic background worries humming a low rumble. Later.

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

Marian told me that my writing is always filled with sensory details and imagery, and that whatever I write about she always comes away filled with so many different kinds of feelings. She said she can’t write like that and she always wishes she could. I laughed and told her I write that way because I don’t know how to write! So I just squint my eye and try to describe things I see. You can see that in the piece above. All I’m doing is trying to describe. How did it taste? How did it feel? Were there any sounds? What did I touch? What touched me?

As I was saying that to her I was feeling kind of bad about it, like bad writer, bad bad writer. But as I thought about it (and she argued with me too), I thought about what it is I want when I read a book. What I want is to feel something. I might feel something from the way the plot unfolds, or I might feel something because I connect to a character, or because I’m scared or devastated by what happens to a character, but I read for the feeling. When I read someone who can make me feel something I want to read everything they write. So maybe I did learn something about writing from reading good stuff.

Why do you read? Are you after feelings, like me? Are you just wanting to be swept out of your daily life, so it’s about diversion? I never really realized how much it’s about feeling something for me, until this morning. And now I think maybe I do know a little bit about writing, after all.

it’s all really beautiful

Beauty moves your soul, that’s kind of the definition, as far as I’m concerned. That means it lives outside valence; in other words, beauty can be sad or happy; gain or loss; coming in or going out. It can all be beautiful, every last thing, and you really have to open your heart to know that. The opposite of beauty closes your heart and makes you less. What would that be, the opposite of beauty? Ugliness? Death? Loss? Emptiness? My best publication is about the ridiculousness of making emotions into polar pairs. Anyway, beauty opens your heart and makes you bigger. I don’t know much, but I think I know this.

Music is beauty. Making music is beauty. Listening to people make music is beauty. Watching people make theater, make art, that’s beauty too. The act of creation is beauty, even if it’s amateur creation. Knowing yourself is beauty. Being fully who you are is beauty. BEING IS BEAUTY. That moment where you are fully alive in the moment, threads of yourself shimmering, that is beauty. I love those moments.

Not too long ago I bought a ukulele. It’s made of solid zebrawood, and it is so beautiful:

silly me, but not silly ukulele
silly me, but not silly ukulele

A very important song in my life is Somewhere Over The Rainbow, a song that smacked me between the eyes with a deeper understand of what the word hope means. I really bought the ukulele so I could play that song for myself. We should make music for ourselves. We should make art for ourselves. We should create beauty, just for ourselves. If other people enjoy it too, that’s a bonus. But we really must create beauty for ourselves.

Since I was in high school, I’ve played the guitar. I played it when I lived in a car, I played it to soothe myself, and I played it to get food. I played it for my sister, to make her happy and help her sleep; I played it for my children, to help them feel loved and drift off to sleep. And I play it for myself, to make myself happy. Am I very good? Good enough.

I wish you comfort and ease with good enough because it is good enough to lift you, good enough to give you beauty. Your painting doesn’t have to be perfect, your poem can be a good start, your stories can move you, that’s enough. Here’s what Anne Lamott says about how to write:

If people want to know the secret of writing and art, I would say, ‘Write badly. That’s what we all do. Just do it. No one cares if you write or paint or dance, so YOU’d better. Never give up. read more poetry. Then find someone who will edit your work for you, like a friend or associate who needs someone to edit his or her work; or a teacher; or someone you pay, if you can. Without this, you are doomed. No one can help you if you don’t have a tough and respectful reader. Not even Jesus can help you. But you are still loved and chosen. Here, have some cherries.

Happy Sunday, y’all. Make something today, anything.

quiet happiness

I am a huge fan of big loud happiness — group happiness, squealing happiness, outside happiness, it’s all good. When everyone is there, when it’s just a great laughing good time, that’s good happiness. I enjoy it a lot. But actually, I think I enjoy the quiet happiness even more. Quiet happiness doesn’t need other people in the same way big loud happiness does — is that right? I can’t think of a big loud happy you can have all by yourself. If I’m right, that gives the trump to quiet happiness, because you can have it even if there’s no one else around.

Quiet happiness is probably closer to some of the synonyms, too: contentment, pleasure, even joy, though I’ll bet joy goes both ways. Quiet happiness is also deep, and I really enjoy that part of it. I’ve been feeling a lot of quiet happiness lately, even as I’ve been feeling so re-newly heartbroken by the end of my marriage. Letting go of someone you love so much in the hopes that he can be happy is just so so hard. So perhaps that feeling sets the tone for quiet happiness, because I sit alone a lot, thinking and feeling my heartache. But in the midst of that, there is happiness all around.

I’ve been going to Mozart’s, a coffee house on Lake Austin, at sunset. There is often a nice breeze, and I sit at the edge of the deck and watch the sun go down, and write.* The light is often beautiful, and the deck is filled with people and usually someone playing a guitar.

beautiful light, and my notebook for writing.
beautiful light, and my notebook for writing.

The light in that picture fits quiet happiness, doesn’t it? And then, the sunset:

sunset

When the light is fading, I go home to my quiet, beautiful little home and read, or find a movie that makes me happy, or make my own music.

my new ukulele, my old banjo, and my even older guitar. my babies.
my new ukulele, my old banjo, and my even older guitar. my babies.

I’ll cook a nice dinner for myself, take pleasure in the preparation, enjoy the quiet and my sweet life. I’ll put on some beautiful music, like the CD that Dixie just sent me, The Wailin’ Jennys, and just drift in their beautiful quiet harmonies. I love harmony. Last night I went to see Woman Under the Influence, that great old 1974 movie by Cassavetes, starring Gena Rowlands, at the Paramount — a very old theater downtown. I feel drawn in, but in a good way, sitting quietly inside myself and watching everything going on all around me. The breakdown, the remaking, the love in that movie makes me very quiet and feel so touched by life, by how hard it is, by how hard we have to try.

Tonight I’m going to a concert — Iron & Wine. Sam Beam (the guy who is Iron & Wine) lives in Dripping Springs, just SW of Austin, and I love his music because it’s quiet, rich, moody, him and his guitar. My favorite kind of music, a songwriter and his guitar. I hope you have a beautiful Saturday, as I will.

*Here is the short piece I wrote that night on the deck, July 18, 2013:

Here I am with a broken heart. I feel the thousands of small raku-fractures on its surface, some going deep into the muscle, some running dangerously into the chambers and large vessels. The sun is moving down behind the hill over my left shoulder. A young woman plays guitar and sings “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” in my voice. Whispery, soft edges. I believe her, even though her own songs all sound sad.

Now the sun comes in at my eye-angle and the white lights come on in the trees. So much light, but all of it soft and late.

People here on the deck in pairs and groups. Only one other person is alone, like me — a college-age girl, texting friends to come meet her, probably. I have people to text, friends, my daughter to call, but I want to sit here alone in the fading light.

People say cheer up. People say it’ll get better. People say don’t be sad. People say let not your heart be troubled. People say put on a happy face. People send jokes, photos of hot young men without shirts, photos of kittens. People try to fix me up. People tell me I’ll fall in love again.

But I don’t want to run away. The cracks are in my heart, not on the ground. I can stand here. I can bear the end of the day, the soft sad music, my solitude. I honor my love by facing it.

To get here, I drove past the house I lived in when I was 6, Queen of the Pillbugs. Past the house where I nursed my brand new baby Katie. Past the house where my father finally pulled his trigger. Past 6 years old, 23 years old, and now I am here, 54 years old and my raku heart races to the next.

What have these people around me figured out? Have they? They laugh and seem easy, seem like they’ve found the grail.

My coffee is cold. My mousse is gone. The sun is down, and the crowd gets bigger, and louder. And I will go home.

 

the most unbelievable number

Modesty requires that I blush when you insist there’s no way I — such a young, lively queen of the pillbugs — can possibly be 54. Still, that number is not entirely unbelievable, especially if you look a little closer. Other numbers associated with me (146, 4.0, 5’10”, 81, 99th) are shocking or surprising, but not the most unbelievable number. The most unbelievable number is 1,122.

This is my 1,122nd post. Here, collected at this url, are all the posts from Thrums, then my short-lived Pillbug site on squarespace (I still resent squarespace, what a bad platform), and now here. I didn’t notice when I clicked past 1,000, but I’ve been noticing lately and the loveliness of 1122 is enough to prompt me to pause here and comment.

yeah, that tag cloud is a pretty good representation!
yeah, that tag cloud is a pretty good representation!

You don’t have to have been reading very long to see my short list of recurring themes: happiness and joy, struggles, depression, books, family and friends, and the sideways slinky of self-improvement efforts (and you may even remember a post or two where I talk about it in that way, the sideways slinky). You may remember times I’ve had the same insight over and over, each time like it’s a whole new thing. (But that’s OK, because I believe that’s how it goes.) You may remember the times I’ve vowed that finally I get something, only to lose track of that thing I was so sure of. If you’re an old-timer (to reading me, not necessarily your age!), you remember how this used to be primarily a knitting blog. (Yesterday I started a knitting project, the first since Gracie died.) (And if you’ve been around a long time, perhaps you are now rolling your metaphorical eyes at my inordinate fondness for parenthetical asides.)

What is this compulsion I apparently have to write in this format? I’m often a tiny bit appalled by the seeming narcissism of it, as if I think that whatever I have to say here will be of interest to anyone else. And yet I have found that it is, at times, and that’s a particular reward. I love Anne Lamott and her honesty inspires mine, and I think we all long to feel less alone, to find another person who feels like we do. Like every other person who blogs, I go in and out of feeling like I’ve tapped the well and no longer have anything to say. But then I do, and it’s an itch. An idea pricks me somewhere in my mind, it’s almost a physical feeling, and I start focusing in an unfocused way. I can’t see what it is, so I pause in an alert way and let it gather. And then I see it, and I start organizing it, thinking how I will say it here, finding first sentences, thinking about related material I can bring in. And then I have to get it down.

Part of my real need to do this stems from the particulars of my childhood, where I had to be and remain invisible, where we weren’t who we pretended to be, where we appeared and disappeared, sometimes without much of a trace. So this blog is a kind of record of my existence: Here! I’ve been here, I thought about these things, cared about those things, this is who I am, I have been here. Another part is that writing about things is my way of understanding them, of figuring out what I know and think and feel, of making sense and meaning. But still, why here? Why not in a journal that’s private? I’ve done that but I don’t stick to it like I do here. For some reason, an imagined reader — even if no one reads — is critical. My statcounter tells me how many people a day visit the site, provides a bit of information about you, how many times each IP address has visited, so I’m well aware if there are days no one reads. That hasn’t happened since the very beginning, but visits do ebb and flow. Visits slow down around the winter holidays as people are busy with their own real lives. Visits slow down if I’ve had a prolonged run of self-indulgent whiny-type posts. But even on those days of much lower readership, I don’t care, I still ‘need’ to come here and write.

words peopleI don’t know anything . . . I mean, I do know things, I know a lot of things, but I don’t have the kind of authority that so many bloggers take on. Here are the 12 things you should do to banish depression! Happy people handle stress like this! Do these 5 things and you’ll vanquish self-doubt! The only authority I have is about my own experience, and I try to share it as honestly as I can. A friend in NY asked me if my blog is a true representation of my life, and I said the emotional tenor is absolutely true. I leave out specific things that happen, especially if they relate to others who didn’t sign up for public display, or if they are too complicated to explain, or simply too private. But even then, I’ll tip my hand to something going on and then explore the emotional part of it. I wish I could find the specific quote I just read, but I think it was by Toni Morrison, and it was something about writing stories about the lives of people who may be SO SO far removed from any reader’s experience. She said the way to make that work is to be entirely specific about details, because readers can understand those little details because they’re human. So I share my little details in the belief that you will relate to them, even if our lives are very different.

Through these blog posts I have met so many people, people who are very real in my life. I’d start listing your names but seein as how I’m 54 my memory ain’t what she used to be and I’d leave out someone and it would then be a nonstop editing process as I get you all in. “Oh! How could I possibly have left out….!” Periodically I thank you for reading, and that’s a heartfelt sentiment. I do thank you for reading. I thank you so much for leaving comments, when you do. I thank you for subscribing. I thank you for being a real part of my life.

dirt(y)

Every other Wednesday I have an hour-long Skype writing session with my friend Marian, who lives in NJ. When I lived in NYC we sometimes met to write together, so I was thrilled when she had the great idea to continue over Skype. We take turns: one session I’ll bring three one-word prompts that we respond to, and when we finish that she reads something she’s working on—the following session two weeks later, we switch. It’s a good motivator to make us get some writing done on our own. Yesterday was my week to provide the writing prompts, and one of the words I brought was “dirty.” I wrote:

The desert was just a whisper of dirt blowing around on bedrock, dirt in the air and in my eyes, but it didn’t feel dirty, it didn’t creep me out, it wasn’t hidden or secretive, it wasn’t cloaked in something else, it was just dirt. Rock ground down by eons of wind and sun, transformed. Ancient bones scoured into smallness, bones of mountain and rock, bones of animals and people, bones of dinosaurs, bones of shells, flying over the face of the earth, lodging in my nose and mouth and entering my blood to join my bones.

dirtThe thing that’s so great about stream of consciousness writing instead of labored, effortful writing, is that you happen onto things you never expected. I absolutely love this distinction between the cleanness of dirt as opposed to the “dirty,” that dirt is a marker of time, of transformation, and that of course links right over to God forming man out of dirt, of us returning to dust and ash. And none of that is dirty. So what is dirty? As I quickly wrote, I understood dirty as having to do with secrets, and ugliness, and shame. If you do a Google image search for dirty (PLEASE DO NOT DO THAT) the pictures are disgusting. And no surprise, the image search for dirt is more like the picture embedded in this post. Loam, silt, sand, cracked earth, black dirt, material for growing things, nourishment, born of this dirt, buried in this ground, dirt. Obviously I knew this — I wrote it — but I didn’t really know I knew it.

The second word I brought was “clean” and I wrote:

Feeling hungry and empty feels so clean, I love the electric blue light of it. It doesn’t feel like a state of want, of need, but a state of WANT, seeking, hoping, blue, white. Creative want, color want, light want, music want, laugh want, breath want, air want, joy want, brilliance want. Being in the dusty desert, grit in my teeth, wind shaking my trailer, blew away webs and cleaned me out, ready for me the next thing.

Writing is such fun, getting into a slipstream of something, the rhythmic run of wants originating from the idea of clean — if you’d asked me to put those together, I just couldn’t have done it.

Did I tell you I’m going to Indonesia in May? The itinerary is coming together: on Java, Yogyakarta and Borobodur and Solo; on Sulawesi, Tana Toraja; snorkeling around the Spice Islands; and then a trip back to beautiful Phnom Penh and a jaunt down to the coast, to Kep — and leaving three weeks from this Friday! I have the shell of the blog created already and as always, I’ll post the link here in the hopes that you follow along.

For now, though, happy Thursday y’all — I hope today you can pause for a second, at some point, and realize how brilliant your life is. As for me, I am back, so filled with things to think about, things I want to write about here — the idea of being incomplete in a way that a partner completes; the color blue; translation; music; being vs achieving; so many things to write and think about. It’s so good to be back. xo

my mission

I know what my mission is, here on this little blog. I mean, I have a lot of missions, some for me and some for whoever reads my words in the dark. The mission that relates to you is an echo of Anne Lamott’s writing, which seems to seek her own honest and authentic self in order that readers don’t feel so alone — that we see another person who is as goofed up, as lost in the dark at times, as lazy and ugly in small ways as we are, so we know we’re not the only one. So I try very hard to be as honest about the shady corners as I can so you can see that you’re really not in it by yourself.

It’s been so long since I was able to read — since my beautiful vacation in Myanmar, actually. On the long flight from Austin to BWI, I started reading this book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and I came across a passage that so beautifully captured my own writing mission for myself, so I put it here for my own record, and for you:

What other reason might I have for writing this—ridiculous journal of an aging concierge—if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.

In this way, in the full proof and texture of my self, I accede to a self-forgetfulness that borders on ecstasy, to savor the blissful calm of my watching consciousness.

I cannot recommend writing strongly enough, for everyone (though most people who would read my blog are probably already fond of writing, themselves). If I had a nickel for every time I wrote a sentence and astonished myself — not at any brilliance in the sentence, but rather at the truth of it, at the articulation of something I didn’t realize I knew —  I’d have a lush bank account. It’s the physical putting-into-words of it, the mild struggle to figure out how to say something. If you just think it, you allow yourself to gloss over the struggle and think, yeah, I know what I mean. But you don’t. It’s the act of finding the right words…..and the thrill of finding them!…..that makes you know what you know. I learned this in graduate school, that I didn’t know what I knew until I tried to write the paper. But it’s much more deeply true for personal writing. 

It’s quite a good book so far, and I look forward to finishing it and telling you about it! It has a lot to say about living in the world vs living in your head, and the brilliance and power of grammar (no, really!), and seeing the beautiful in the every day, and finding meaning. I’m a third of the way through it so it may tilt and shift, but so far, two thumbs up.