Saturday, December 22, 2012


Today there were a few letters to write. It was a good thing; long I'd put off--no, simply forgotten--to write the letters, but today there was suddenly and blissfully time and mental space for them. Going visiting will do that to you; visiting the house where you were once a child, an angst-filled teen, will do that to you. The place is your own so you're free to do as you'd please, and comfortably--make the strongest coffee upon waking, forget to clean the scattered grounds from the kitchen sink, start your wash and give your old dog free reign. Blessed places, these childhood homes; there's always someone else to do the business of keeping them up, and since you've been gone you're only a welcome, beloved, longed-for presence. You're allowed to sit at the table and write your letters while someone else vacuums the living room. (A promise to any possible future offspring of mine: I'll do the same for you. I'll provide you with such a space.)

There were a few good lines in the letters. One came after three-quarters of an Old Fashioned, a lit Christmas tree and a fire place, a dog curled at my hip. The other was the product of a late morning run through snow, the only act I've ever known in my short life to clear my mind and my soul as purely as they may possibly be cleared; though I've traveled little, I do keep a short list of places I have run, among them a stretch of desert highway at blood-red sunrise just outside Canyon de Chelly, and a spine-curve hilltop of road that drops unabashedly towards the Atlantic ocean.

One letter I sent away that way, ocean-wards. Towards a tiny, salty town whose loneliness I've known, whose loneliness I've both longed for and felt it once in my power to cure. To this person, I should have perhaps written that I wished to cure his loneliness, but it's taken me until my twenty-ninth year if my count is correct to know that none can cure another's loneliness, no matter how desperate the desire. For the moment at the mailbox, for the two hundred and forty seconds it may take to read the letter, for the card with the picture of the country houses swathed in winter's weight pinned to the board above the desk where dreaming and despair alike are undertaken--for these things I've sent the letter, whatever good it might do in reaching out into the world, this wide and difficult place.

In the second letter I wrote about Christmas. It's almost always the shameful case that I've very little money for gifts for the people I love most in this world, and to whom I'd love to give all my money. This is always a result of my own poor choices and an inconvenient romanticism about life's work. And yet time and again when I go about Christmas shopping with my few dollars, I am amazed to see that in the crowded aisle and on the street dirty with mid-December snow there remains that thing which may be called cliche but which is also aptly called good-will. This year, it was in the man in the wheelchair at the photo shop who offered to take me for a ride, and told me that I had a sense of humor. At first I avoided his gaze, feeling myself the brunt of a rude joke, but then felt suddenly that I didn't need any money, none at all. I would have liked to be a different person then; someone who wasn't quite so careful. Someone who might have stood longer with the man and told a dirty joke or two. Such a person I am not. It is a perfectly acceptable and regrettable thing to be the person I am. I often know that God might like me to be better. I often know that he thinks I am doing just fine.

This was the main topic of the final letter, this life as a good-enough but never-good-enough living being. Let me just say that there's perhaps not enough ink or paper to tell all the tales about the mistakes made, the drunken arguments, the words that go right to the quick and you say them knowing they're going there, the broken temper and the practical impossibility of pure remorse. There's not enough paper to tell it all. It seems to me that it's the regrettable self that gets all the ink, all the words. The woman I want to be, when I am her, is happy with a blank page and only a few simple things to say, only a few questions to ask. I'll do my best to be her more often, this woman. I'll put some money aside, and learn a few rude jokes, and wash my coffee grounds down the sink. I'll offer to vacuum the living room for my mother. 

Thanks for reading. 


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Might I Suggest.

Might I suggest...

1.) Toasting yourself when you drink a glass of wine at the end of the day, even if you're already in your pajamas, at 7:30, and the only company you've got is the dog. Make a toast to yourself, and the pajamas, and the dog. He's listening, and he agrees. Cheers.

2.) Thinking about buying the first season of Bewitched at Target. Ten bucks, why not? Samantha's kind of a strong lady, what with that nose twitching thing and all, and black and white love is simple love, not much can go wrong there. 

3.) Saving your ten dollars for something else.

4.) Having french toast for dinner. Or waffles. You can have a salad, too. Green equals good. 

5.) Being okay with not knowing how to say what you feel, or how to ask for what you want, or why it makes you afraid. For that matter, being okay with not knowing how you feel. Or what you want. Or being afraid.

6.) That you don't say 'I'm sorry', quite so much. It's okay that you dropped your change at the cash register. It's okay if you need a minute more to decide. It's okay if you want a little more, or a little less, or something a little different. In fact, most of it is okay.
7.) Loving your possessions like they have life: thank your car for getting you there. Thank your computer for starting up each morning. Thank your radio for keeping you company. Your bed for cushioning your body. Your home for letting you inside, out of the cold, into its safe space. Thank the heat for coming on, the water for running, the fridge for keeping the milk cold. 

8.) Talking to the woman next to you at the laundromat. She's already seen your underwear. 

9.) Re-reading the books you loved when you were ten, or thirteen, or a senior in high school. Judy Blume knows her shit. 

10.) Saying what you feel. Asking for what you want. Being afraid and doing it anyway. 

Thanks for reading. 


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Some Days

Some mornings, far between, your legs take on a life of their own, and say, "we've got to rest". 
On those days, get gentle if you can. Listen, and say, "Okay. Tomorrow." 

Some days, your ribs take on a life of their own, and say, "there's not enough air in here". 
On these days, open the door and find the air. 

Certain hours, your heart is nothing but a floating house, inside of you. It has no doors and the windows are dark. It's a mystery house, and you sneak around its edges, curious and cautious. 
In these hours, sit and wait. A curtain flutters. 

Some midnights, you wake and can't shake the dream that held you breathless. What have you done? 
There's a dead body, and a highway, and an envy that wraps you like tightening wire. 
These midnights, feel the warmth of the bed, reach across the space, find the other being who sleeps beside you. Spread your palm across his back, which is solid ground, which shakes you free. 

Some summer evenings, you go swimming in a lake so calm you are guilty over breaking it, pushing outwards into its heavy depth. 
On these evenings, give up your guilt to the water, and know that it takes it all from you willingly. 
It washes you clean of the midnights, the things you've done, the breathless body, 
the house that is your heart that is sometimes unknown to you.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Wild Willa

I have a wild kitty named Willa. Wild Willa. She's small and a little skittish and she's got a major attitude on her, has had since she was a tiny kitten. I am her preferred person, and I'm majorly flattered by that. In the little apartment where I live, when the weather is warm, I leave open a window for her, and she comes and goes as she pleases, sometimes bringing me 'gifts' in the form of dead mice or (the greatest sorrow) half-live song birds. I can't get mad at her, though I am mad; she thinks she's showing me her affection, her appreciation, her little black kitty love. 

This has been a shadowed month, because the little black kitty who prefers me has gone missing. She's plum run away, gone adrift, disappeared into the growing cold and falling leaves of Autumn. It's been about a month now, since I saw her last. I'm not quite sure how to react to this kind of loss; I've done some of the necessary things--walked the neighborhood calling until I'm hoarse; sent pictures and warnings to the animal shelters; prayed a good deal--to God, to the gods, to the universe, to the animal kingdom (whoever or whatever controls the impulses of wild things, of tame things). There is more I could do, I know, and I'll do it. I'll cover all ground. But there's something I've got to admit: I'm not sure how much good any of it will do. 

I'm not a callous person (though my callousness has certainly grown a bit, this year, for a variety of reasons). I watch the weather getting colder, I hear reports of snow, I pass Willa's waiting food dish and little blue blanket tucked in the corner of my bedroom a hundred times every day, and there is an ache in the deepest part of me. What's ironic is that that deep part--the place where the sorrow lives--is also where the toughness that carries me through resides. I have, in this single part of my soul, the capacity to disintegrate into a thousand pieces and the capacity to staunchly hold myself upright, to power through and continue on. Two forces. Totally different yet equally powerful. Contained in one corner of my being. 

I'm of the opinion that this is true for many of us. That the things we feel most earnestly--our grief, our determination--often dwell in the same part of us. Just as purely, as urgently as we can feel our despair, we can feel our doggedness, and the fortitude that is an absolute necessity in this world. It's a nice thing to think, really: our light living right alongside our dark. It can also be a damned confusing thing; a guilt-inducing struggle for power--who'll win out? The sadness that honors the loss? The toughness that moves beyond it?

A few people know about this missing cat. Not many. All who do are truly kind. Yet many more might hear the news and be practical about it, sorry, but pragmatic. It's just a cat. Cats run away all the time. They also come back all the time. They have second families, other food sources. They find holes where they curl up to heal. They have holes where they curl up to die. They're a fickle animal, of independent mind. All of this is true. I've accepted all of it. I can go entire days not thinking about Willa. I will be honest: she was such a wild thing, sometimes I hardly notice her absence.

But I am not a callous person. I'm just living out, right now, from those twin forces that take up the same corner: I go about my work and I enjoy it. I do the things that need to be done. I do things that make me laugh, things that make me happy. I do generous things, and selfish things. Most of the time, I am cheerful, and why not? I have a beautiful life. A blessed one. And then I pass the waiting food dish, and the blue blanket in the corner, and I'm full of the knowledge of the small, wild thing I've lost.

We can never control the lives of the creatures we tame, not truly; they're given to their own secret impulses, their own half-feral ways. And this is okay. We can love them fiercely, with a kind of toughness, because we must. Because they will undoubtedly leave us before we leave them. And this is okay. We can forget about their leave taking, and move on to new things; this is okay. And then we can remember them in a swift instant as we unlock the door at the end of the day, or latch the window at the first cold wind, or walk down the street where we live, watchful for familiar movement, for the sudden return--all dark days forgotten--of the wild things we've loved.

Thanks for reading. 


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rest When Needed.

Here's a heady mantra: 

let go

It's solid advice. Don't cling to your past. Release what no longer serves you up the good stuff. Cut that cord and you'll find yourself flung forward, all open air and open vistas greeting you.  I'm down with this plan. I've been working damn hard to do it. For a very long time, I thought it was the only solution, really, to a heavy heart. I learned well how to avoid people, places, things that brought up those deep snatches of memory, those currents of time tucked away. I've been getting good at letting go for a good long while now. Then I had a visitor come visiting. I didn't want to see him, at first. (Fear.) I'd gotten good at avoiding this reunion, and I justified the fleeing by saying,  

listen here, I'm letting go.

Ultimately, the visitor won out. And we drove through clear country and met on a street corner. Here's what I found: someone I knew by heart who I didn't know at all. And for the first time in a long time, I began to doubt this whole letting go thing. At least, the way I've been trying to do it.  

Could be: Letting go isn't about running or hiding. 
Could be that it's not about erasing. 
Quite possibly, it's not about clearing away the rubble.

I've been writing this little blog for almost a year now, and when I started it, it was because my heart was heavy. I had to write because to write meant to release, to let go. And it's true that I was holding on to a heady mess. (You've no doubt seen some of it, so bless you.) Funny how we get used to playing certain parts, certain roles. For a long time I let myself be heavy, because I was. I let myself do the 'broken' thing, because I was a broken thing. I did this for a long, long time (though never too long--no measuring healing in life; the time it takes is the time it takes). I played the part for so long that I started to worry when I began feeling light again (for surely, the lightness was a trick. Surely any steady step would only prove my overeager heart). Then I drove through clear country, and met someone on a street corner. And my heart was no longer heavy. But truth be told, it hadn't been that way for awhile; I just hadn't been ready to give up the role I'd perfected, the lines I'd long memorized. 

There is no great epiphany. There is not one single revelation. Not that I can see, anyway. There's only the even progression into new territory, so steady and slow and wide that it's impossible not to look back and take stock of what you've left behind. Look back and it's all always there, as you've left it, as you've known it.  

You don't have to let it go. 
In fact, please don't. 
Just keep moving forward. 
Rest when needed.

Maybe letting go should be about finding a way to love the rubble of our wreckage, to accept every shard stuck beneath our skin. Skin scars over, eventually. And people like to ask questions about scars; think of everything you can turn and look back at, even from a distance. Think of all the stories you can tell. 

Thanks for reading. 


Friday, October 5, 2012

Some of the Things.

It's getting cold in the night. Need to put the garden to bed. Need to put bulbs in the ground--tulip. Garlic. Need to write new blog post. Need to take dog for walk. Need to eat less ice cream. More green stuff. Need to put yoga mat on the floor more mornings. Get on mat. Stop staring into space. Need to grow hair. Get up earlier. Go to bed earlier. Need to drink less. Need to go through excess: clothes, food, books. Give up what's no longer necessary. Need to go shopping at thrift stores to find the new necessary. Need to balance the budget, spend less money. Need to buy things: blender for the green stuff to get healthier and skinnier and happier in body and mind and the in-between. Need to learn how to love more the stuff I have. Long legs. Skin tone. Full mouth. Got to stop boasting. Got to stop thinking boastful thoughts. Got to free up the thinking, no one can hear. Got to stop wondering if others can hear because then, they can. A window: access granted. Got to stop granting access, yo. Got to stop saying 'yo'. Got to grow up. Got to keep young. Got to stay steady. Keep steady; have fun. But don't drink so much. And don't spend so much money. And don't share so much.

Determine: circle of inner knowledge. A selective few. Avoid park path and supermarket and late night blunders, confessions and stories regretted because really, why do they need to know? Above all: do not feign affection. Don't need everyone to like you. You don't need to like everyone. But like everyone. Forgive and forget and let go. But hold tight. Hold close to your bones, to the soft animal of your body. Hold tight. And know that the holding won't go on forever. One day, muscles will loosen, fingers will unfurl. Know this. Know that in the morning, they will still be gone from you. Know that this is a shame. A damn too bad. A cutting, quick, and brutal thing. Know that there is no other way around it. Know what is around you. Know what is front of you as well as behind. Know that you know all of it well. By heart. By touch, by taste, by sight, by sound. Know that no one knows it like you know it. No one. Know that most people don't really care. Know that a lot of people truly care. Know that many people will listen, and will love you for letting them listen. Let them listen. Give them this right. Talk about tulips in the ground. Garlic cloves smooth and tough. Talk about burrowing. Talk about getting out of the burrow. Talk about the winter that weighs us over but carries us through. Talk about the winter, how you long for it to show itself because that's the way it's done back home. Talk about your home, how you miss it. Miss it. Go there. Come back again. Talk of your journey. Think of it in your mind, at night, when no one is around to see you doing nothing but being absolutely still. Absolutely still and thinking. Think. Don't hide from your thoughts. Own them. Keep them. Or set them loose, off on a course all their own. To God. To the dear and dark void. And then sleep. Remember that you do need to sleep. Remember that nearly every sorrow was once assuaged, healed, even a fraction of an inch, by sleep. Sleep. Wake up. Know your feet on the ground. And do some of the things that need to be done.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Things I Might Know About Corner Turning.

1. There isn't only one. The 'one' corner that will deliver us does deliver, but into territory that seeks new deliverance, other changes, other compulsions overcome. It's okay, no work lost. Keep turning.

2. We turn them when we least expect it; four a.m. and sleepless, wandering the household rooms. We turn them when we're not looking. They come upon us at ordinary moments. Do the dishes. Weed the garden. Chop onions. I think, perhaps, the corner wants to take us by surprise, it's own little game.

3. The new life? The new stuff after the turning? It might come rushing, a tumbling and earnest collision, been waiting for entrance and knocking. Or it's the slow leak that's finally run dry, no more to let out. 

4. I am still sad after turning. I'm still apt to get jealous and desperate and cut to the quick with sorrow, but it looks different over here. It looks different over here. There's the hardened self, the thicker skin. The suffering of fewer foolish things. Quicker recovery. Better love.

5. No sorrow in growing that skin. The hardened self, she just knows better what the real shit might look like. She just lives out, and gives out, from a place more certain.

Monday, September 3, 2012


I've been missing lately. Out in the world. Up on a lake. Safe in a cabin, holding my breath under clear water, at a stained picnic table beneath a Buckeye tree with green Buckeye shells--they prick you to protect themselves, but when they fall we collect them and proclaim them treasures.

In this place: there is a hard hat in a shed with a spare key. My two keys are the best keys on my chain; I treasure them; they grant me access, allowance, to this place. Lucky soul. Lucky fish.

A few times it has frozen over, the whole body of water, but not in my remembered lifetime. (The sound a freezing lake makes, do I know it? Like ping ping ping. Out and out. All directions. Sheets of crystals wedded, married, holding on tight, relentless.)

The care given is relentless because: us, too. We're married to the place. We've given it our solemn promise. Much as it makes us snipe and gossip. Much as it makes us work. We'll work for it. I'll work for you. Promise, promise. Mow your orchard grasses, grown tall. Pluck your fruits with stained fingers and bless you, thank you, for what you offer. Sweep your floors, wipe your counters clean, move away your old growth, burn it up and tend the fire until my lashes are singed and my cheeks hold your heat. For you, this I will do. I promise.

In a good winter you let us in. Waters wild and moving. No freezing. Just churning cold. When I am with you, I am a girl alive. Every single limb alive. Every single cell getting deliberate about living.

We walked your road, slick with ice, dusty with summer. Then, our footsteps matched. We wanted them to match, then. Now I walk the road alone, but beside me there are other people, there are all the people I've ever walked beside. They're talking still and they don't see me, but I see them. They walk your road. They'll be walking there forever.

You couldn't have told us what was coming. You couldn't have said: careful. You could only have said: keep walking. And that's enough.

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Susa Stories #3: The Children

#3 The Children

The children are three: Polly, Adelaide, and Lawrence, called Laurie. They are getting older now: Adelaide has gone away into her adult life. Laurie and Polly are still at home—Laurie going to the college, Polly a senior at the high school. They come home to claim their mail and their meals and to sleep, most nights, in their same narrow, childhood beds though Polly’s gang have countless study nights and slumber parties, and Laurie has his fraternity and sometimes, too, a mystery girl. Susa has stepped back from this situation; she has, more or less, laid down her weapons in her battle to keep her children. When they were small, they would gather around her on the bed in the master bedroom, clamoring for the next chapter in the chosen book, begging Susa to read the parts in funny, high-pitched or stuttering voices. They wore soft pajamas and clean socks; their cheeks were rosy from the bath. This is how Susa recalls it. She fails to remember their exhausting energy, their fighting words, her own weariness and fantasy of escape.
Now they come and go as they please, leaving beds unmade, dishes unwashed, their pajamas (no longer soft, rarely cleaned, faintly sexual) strewn on bedroom floors. They read beauty magazines or thin volumes of poetry and fashionable philosophy; they assume Susa has no understanding. Only Laurie will still sometimes read with his mother—now he is the reader, she the listener. He reads to her from his perch on the kitchen stool; she listens while stirring pepper into sauce, while grating cheese onto the casserole for their dinner. She half listens to her son, half marvels at his presence; he seems too large to have emerged from her. Here he is before her: Laurie, in his worn Dockers and plaid shirt, his skin finally clear, his face a handsome, slightly sorrowful face. He reads to her from his history and political science books; Susa half listens, half struggles with every single moment from her life as a mother, each memory crowding in, interrupting until she is here, until the memories combine to create this: her twenty-two year old son with unshaven face and baritone voice explaining the complexities of the Bolshevik Revolution to his mother. This is Laurie.
This is Polly: seventeen, uncaring, a few pounds overweight, loving in random snatches and rushes of affection. Polly is her father’s champion. Once, in the aftermath of the worst fight, Polly found Susa on the back porch, cigarette in hand, attempting to talk herself back into function. Polly sat beside her mother. “Daddy doesn’t like you smoking,” she reminded in her little girl voice.
            Susa watched the cigarette in her fingers. “I know,” she said, bringing it to her lips. Polly sidled closer and tucked her hand in the crook of Susa’s elbow.
            “I won’t tell,” she said. She laid her cheek, still cushioned with baby fat, against Susa’s shoulder. “You said you were going to leave,” she said.
            “I was fighting,” Susa said. “I was angry at Daddy.”
            “I love Daddy.”
            “I know.”
            “But if you leave,” Polly said, “I won’t love you anymore.”
             Susa studied the top of her child’s head.
             She studies it still, when Polly isn’t looking, when she’s fallen asleep in front of the television, or when she’s bent over her school books at the dining room table. She thinks, no matter how long she tries, that she won’t be able to get to what’s inside this head. She will always feel a slight alienation from her youngest child. She will always watch her a bit more closely than she watches the others, prepared for what, she cannot know, but prepared nevertheless, cautious.
And Adelaide. Adelaide was the first born, and the first to leave home. She went 100 miles away when she went, to live in a city, in a downtown studio apartment with her lover. This was Adelaide’s word, not Susa’s. Lover. It was the modern word; no one dated or went steady anymore. So they lived, Adelaide and the lover, in a fifth floor walk up on a cobblestone street, walking distance from the university they both attended with other children and their lovers. At least, Susa comforted herself, there was that—there was learning along with the loving (or the sex, which was what the situation was mostly defined by. And later of course, the lover would change his mind and one day walk away for good, and this would be part of Adelaide’s learning, along with the lessons about grocery shopping, housekeeping, modern art and medieval females writers).
To her oldest daughter, Susa could offer nothing but checks sent through the mail and a sympathetic ear, pressed against the phone, when a crisis occurred. They happened often; the lover would leave in a fury only to reappear again with a paper bag of rose petals or Indian takeout. Their love was always in doubt, yet it seemed to always reappear, given enough time apart. There were grand plans made with the lover: a year in London, a jaunt to Mexico, a plan to cut all wheat and dairy from their diets. Money or ease of execution was rarely considered, and the plans rarely came to fruition.
They lived in a one room flat, Susa’s daughter and this man; they slept together on a mattress on the floor. How often did Adelaide change the sheets? Susa wondered. Did the man wear pajamas when he slept? Or did they fall to sleep naked, the both of them, after bouts of love making? Susa imagined the man to be dark-skinned, with long, slender limbs and a full mouth. She could imagine his body amongst the clean or unclean sheets, but she could not imagine Adelaide’s body there beside his. This child she had birthed and bathed and comforted—she could not place her in bed beside a man. 

Adelaide was tall; she had knobby knees and a strong jaw line. When she was at home she hummed show tunes while she did chores around the house. She was a gentle soul, and the lover, Susa feared, would slowly wear away this tenderness. 
One day in a springtime Adelaide called Susa up around the cocktail hour. Susa was in the middle of fixing supper. “I’m done with this city,” Adelaide declared. “I’m done with him and all his moods.” 
             Susa imagined a long-limbed, dark man combing the streets, a bag of Indian takeout in hand, inexplicably moody. “Well,” she said, grating cheese, “your father and I would love to have you home.”
            “Oh mother,” said Adelaide, sighing, “the world is wide.”
            Susa nodded and listened, though she was unsure as to what this statement might mean. For Susa, the world then was a three-bedroom house and dinner to be served at seven; it was a husband watching golf in the den; it was a sullen daughter studying Algebra in the dining room; it was a stolen cigarette on the back porch, after the kitchen had been put away for the night. Susa was stirring cheese into sauce for scalloped potatoes. This was her world. But while she stirred, she listened, and she let her daughter teach her this lesson. 

Thanks for reading. 


Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Susa Stories #2: Shrapnel.

#2: Shrapnel. 

 For one season, a springtime, Susa lived by herself. This was before she married H. She lived in a small studio apartment on the ground floor of an old house. She got a patch of yard, a front stoop even. And every single morning she was alone. There was both beauty and danger in this independence. She sometimes wondered: what if she would never feel as happy with someone else as she felt with herself? This was the threat, the lurking worry that she pushed away but felt like a piece of shrapnel buried deep in her skin.

Susa’s father was a veteran, an old, silent man; he contained more pieces of shrapnel beneath the skin of his chest than he could count, although as a child Susa had sometimes asked him to try, and he’d begin, touching his chest through his t-shirt as he stood half-shaven before the bathroom mirror, Susa standing on a stool next to him. He’d try to count the way one tries to count the stars; you’re lost before you’ve begun. He felt the pain of the metal shards still; they were almost like living things when he became overheated with work or worry, suddenly taking it upon themselves to find a way out. Her father called the shrapnel ‘prisoners’ in his joking moments, his own prisoners of war from his time served. The pieces didn’t want to be in him, his native body; they hated being in him as much as he’d hated being in their homeland, too. As a child, Susa couldn’t understand, and would live most of her early life envisioning rebel armies of human-sized bits of shrapnel (for she’d seen some of the pieces up close—those that did manage to work loose and be pried free, sharp and thin as shards of mica) until her high school history book set her right.

Like shrapnel, she envisioned her own secrets: loving being alone more than being with other people; a distrust of powerful women and Europeans; a daydream of becoming a famous singer; the threat that one day a nerve ending would snap and she'd lose all composure, wiping a restaurant table clean with a single angry sweep of her arm. The secrets tried to surface now and again, and she’d feel their attempt at freedom, and again stifle them until they were hidden safely within her. 

Living alone, Susa never got lonely; there was no one around to forget about her, so there was no attention to long for or feel insecure about. Living alone, she felt that she became a powerful woman herself, and out on the street she walked a bit differently; she felt less guilty about answering no. Living alone, she could sometimes drink too much wine and sing in the bathtub, pretending a concert. Her waking moments were colored by a feeling of greatest luck. She painted the small bathroom in her apartment a sunrise orange, brought home a small spotted cat, bought herself seeds and flower pots for the windowsill where the slowly strengthening spring sun came through. She cut poems from the papers she read and pasted them to the cupboards in her kitchen. She played records loud or soft, went out when she felt like it, came home to sleep heavily, sprawled across her bed, to wake to boil water for coffee, take in the morning news, ready herself for the day, taking as long in the bathroom as she pleased, and all of it alone, alone, alone. Nothing, she felt, could equal freedom more than this, and when Susa thought the word ‘freedom’ she thought war, and with war came her father, and with her father, shrapnel, caught and fighting beneath the surface. 

Her father wanted that shrapnel free; he would sometimes cry, during a bad spell, though he tried to keep this hidden. Some pieces did get free, slowly, and as a child Susa envisioned them traveling back to their homeland, pulled there by some magnetic force. Freedom, she wanted to write in a letter to her father in that season of living alone, freedom is what everything wants. Her mother would have sighed and asked her if she’d met any single men, but her father would have understood. He would have sat beside her on the front stoop of her apartment on a dark night, looking up and trying to count the stars.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Susa Stories. #1: Susa in the Morning

Susa in the Morning

It is a morning in mid-November and Susa is awake before the others. She goes from the bedroom upstairs, leaving the electric blanket and H’s warm, curved body, and crosses the upper living room. This room is carpeted in a mossy green, of a fabric that prickles her bare feet; in a little recess, hidden behind paneled sliding doors, there is a small sink and bar, things added by H over the years as they’ve grown older and gained money. Within the walls of the room are shelves, built in; behind these shelves are mirrors, so that the bottles of gin and whiskey, bourbon and rum, and something called sloe gin that Susa loves a little too much, are reflected and multiplied over themselves, creating a sense of wealth that Susa sometimes finds cloying. This closeted space is H’s proudest household achievement. 
Last night, Susa had two glasses of the sloe gin, giving her the requisite headache and sending her away from the game of Bridge that she and H had been playing with their daughter Adelaide and the man she's planning to marry. She’d gone to bed with an aspirin and cold washcloth at eight o’clock, so on this winter morning she wakes around six and leaves the bed.

The little dog who sleeps on a fat cushion by the bed wakes with her and follows at her heels. He is all excitement and anticipation over the turn towards morning; he stretches and dances and makes little yawning noises. Together they pad down the stairs—covered in the same mossy green. In the kitchen Susa makes a strong pot of coffee and leaves it to warm on the range. From the metal drawer beneath the stack of phone books and cook books she takes a packet of cigarettes and removes the cellophane wrappings. Cigarette in hand, she goes to the back door to let the little dog outside, following him after slipping her feet into a pair of H’s discarded winter boots. 

Even at this early, cold hour, people are awake and beginning to live: on the side street by the entrance to the college a car engine labors, its headlights dim, its exhaust breathing white into the still air. Susa stands in robe and boots, cigarette between slack fingers, and listens to the crunch of hardened snow under boot heels; two muffled figures pass the end of the hedgerow that shields the back side of the house, their shapes black and bundled, their voices low. The little dog, lifting his leg on the winter-dead raspberry stalks, hears them and barks—a shrill, startling sound in the frozen dawn. The shorter figure, a woman, looks up at the sound and sees Susa down the narrow pathway, at the top of the stair. She nods, the glint of her eyes clearly visible, and is gone. Susa brings the cigarette to her lips once more before tossing it atop the other butts in the cracked flower pot on the top step. She ties her robe more tightly, beginning to feel her numbness, and whistles for the dog—a little white terrier named Maxine, begged for by the children when they were young; begged for, then slowly forgotten, tired of, and Susa, who'd never understood animals, found that she was the dog's truest companion.
Back in the kitchen, the coffee has begun to boil, and a half-burned smell is growing. Outside, the sun has come up; it will linger behind a layer of ashen clouds until late afternoon. Susa pours herself a cup of coffee. She listens to the thump of newspaper against doorstep. She scoops kibble into the dog’s dish. Upstairs, she hears the creak of bed springs as H lifts himself from sleep. From the children’s bath down the hallway comes the sound of running water. She is no longer alone, and the day has begun.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dear Kristen Stewart.

True story: I enjoy the Twilight saga. While I'm the first to concede that these books and movies have relatively little (okay, maybe zero) literary and/or artistic magic, they do manage to capture, somehow, the attention of millions, so they must be doing something 'right'. For awhile there, I was a little obsessed with Twilight. Deep in the winter of 2008, living alone for a season in a house meant for three, with only two friendly dogs and a snobby cat for company, I spent a lot of my hours reading about vampires, swooning (but stubborn) girls, and the occasional werewolf. At one point, I was so hooked that I read deep into the night and found myself weeping. Over a Twilight book. I don't think it was very long after that that I decided an intervention of sorts was needed. To date, I've only read the first two books in the series, but I've most certainly seen the movie adaptations, and I love me a good, rollicking Twilight debate with my like-minded sarcastic literary feminists (debates that usually get kind of dirty, of course; how can a guy with no pulse produce semen? But that's another story...).

I won't say much more about Twilight, because I'm sure you're already judging me, for better or for worse. This isn't a post about Twilight, anyway. It's a post about Kristen Stewart. And some words she recently said in an interview. But more than those things, this is a post about strength.

My lovely friend Hannah understands my guilty interest in all things Twilight. This is only one of the many reasons she's lovely. On a recent hike, Hannah and I got to talking Twilight (totally normal hiking talk, of course). She happened to mention that one Kristen Stewart (who, for those of you who live under a rock and/or are more cultured than I am, is the dark-haired, moody gal who got the lifetime paycheck gig of bringing Twilight's Bella Swan to the big screen) had recently been photographed and interviewed in Vanity Fair. Later that week (no doubt anticipating a much needed work break), Hannah sent me the link to this interview. It was only just today that I got around to reading it (skimming parts). Just to debrief you (and because you're surely riveted): I have never been a Kristen Stewart fan. Quite frankly, she seems like someone who would a) chain smoke and swear incessantly, in an attempt to appear tough, b) wear skinny jeans and smoky eyeshadow, in an attempt to be hipster, and c) be quite the bitch. (Forgive me.)

I'm not going to say that Stewart's interview with Vanity Fair dispelled these judgements entirely; she did swear when swearing wasn't necessary, she does sport quite a hefty load of eye makeup in her photographs, and the writer did mention that she showed up wearing skinny jeans and leather. I was fully prepared to walk away from the interview with my totally baseless judgement of this complete stranger intact. That is, up until I read this:

 "As for some of the feminist critiques—that Bella is a throwback heroine because she sacrifices so much for her man—Stewart strongly disagrees. “In fact, you have someone who is stronger than the guy she is with, emotionally. Fight for the thing you love—you are a remarkable person if you do it. It’s a cop-out to think that girl power is all about gusto and ball-busting.”

Fight for the thing you love--you are a remarkable person if you do it. It's a cop-out to think that girl power is all about gusto and ball-busting. Cue my Kristen Stewart Conversion. I wanted to shake the girl's hand right then and there. I even went so far as to post this quote to my Facebook page--which is saying a lot, as I've got major status-update stage fright (not to mention hypocritical Facebook opinions). 

Strength. It doesn't always have to be loud and aggressive. It doesn't have to be about being right, proving wrong, speaking out, forcing our way in. The word 'fight' is in this quote, but so is the word 'love'.

In my life, I've often felt that my tendency towards trying, towards keeping, towards fighting to save love in my life (often beyond the point of repair) was an inherent weakness. My loyalty (a prouder, kinder version of attachment) was my Achilles heel, because it almost always came back to bite me (no vampire pun intended). Most things that I tried desperately to fight for seemed to slip past my well-meaning grasp. Left empty-handed, I felt myself not only a failure, but a fool for even fighting. Real 'strength', I would try to tell myself, must lie in the ability not to need. But I challenge you: show me someone--a happy, human someone--who has ever not needed. Someone. Something. Love. (I mean, even vampires long for things, and long to be longed for, and fight for the things they love. Anyone who's even heard of something called Twilight knows that it's monsters who win, in the end. Needing must not be such a weakness after all.)

I am often accused (in the gentlest terms) of being a 'very nice person'. Someone even once called me 'the puppy' (as in, why would you ever want to hurt the puppy?). There are worse things to be accused of, so I'll gladly take the label, but with it (and for all you other 'nice' people out there) I'll offer the following warning: with nice comes an almost obsessive need to please. It's a dangerous trap, this nicety, because it makes any emotion other than gentility--sorrow, loss, anger, jealousy (hell, even a subtly formed opinion)--incredibly uncomfortable. Run away, my 'nice' self says, when misfortune darkens my doorstep. Nice surely isn't enough of a weapon. It's not strong enough. Misfortune squashes nice like a bug.

Or so I once thought. I'm not sure when the change occurred, but somewhere along the way, in my past few months of darker days, I began to dispel the notion that kindness couldn't nourish strength. That gentleness doesn't fight the battle. It wasn't until I read some words spoken by a woman I had always assumed to be my polar-opposite (tough, edgy, unapologetic), that the belief really clicked into place.

I feel strongest when I am nice. When I am kind. When I am gentle. When I am accommodating. It's not that I'm not standing my ground. It's not that I'm letting you walk all over me. It's not that I don't have opinions or boundaries. I do. They've been challenged, pressed against, even crossed; surely, they will be again. And as before, when it comes down to it, I'll quit the fight. I'll say, enough, or not enough, or whatever is necessary. And I'll hope you won't think me foolish for holding on so long.

To fight: To make one's way. To strive. For whatever you think deserves the battle. With whatever weapons you've worked your whole life to hone.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Quit: Fearing Silence.

Learn the goodness of silence while washing the dishes. While watching the middle years dog get slower, more sleepy.

Quit: Comparison. 

Compare yourself with the small women, then look at your hands while scrubbing the bathtub, while herding the water towards the drain, and see that they are your mother's hands; she would not want this storm for you. She would say: look up at who you really are, at what has come before to make you. Take pride.

Quit: The Punishment of Sleeping Late. 

The alarms go off at 7:00. Now you must set two, yet even kitchen music cannot shake you when sleep--always the best just before waking--has embraced you like a warm flood, like a longed for familiar body, one that is heavy and worn out good. When it's like this, don't fear not waking; sleep until you are no longer sleeping. You're allowed, and there will be weary days to come.

Quit: The Punishment of Midnight Hours.

Your month of birth was a summer month. Your mother gives you this quote: And then it was summer; warm, wonderful summer. Stay up. Keep a light on low, radio too, beside the bed. In summer: hair grows quicker, books you forgot about come off the shelves, skin turns brown and even you are proud. Shame would be to waste one single summer night. So don't. Walk the dog at midnight in nightgown and bare feet. Those who see you will smile.

Quit: The Punishment of Reaching Towards the Missing Ones.

Summer is the season of kindness. Be kind. No matter if it's met with silence. The world listens. The message gets heard.

Quit: Not Writing. 

Just remember: in the thick of it is the deepest, purest content.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Dream.

When my mother was little, she used to dream of being a farmer. There was a stretch of land on the south shore of Flathead Lake, where now a Wal-Mart and Safeway sit, which she had marked as her dream-time farming land. She'd have horses and gardens. She'd make her work working with the land and what it gave her.

Today, my mother holds a demanding job with the State Library in Helena, Montana. She's got two Masters degrees. She's in charge of a lot of projects and people. When I go home to visit, she comes back to the house after a day of putting in nearly twelve working hours, and as she drinks the glass of wine my father will pour for her, she tells me that sometimes she worries that she's not doing the thing she's 'meant to do'. She doesn't mean that she regrets letting the farming dream slip--that one probably went the way of the actress/singer/movie star dreams when she was ten years old--she just means that even though her work challenges and interests her, she worries because she doesn't feel 'called' to do it. She does the work, and does a damn good job, and even gets excited, some of the time, but when the day is done for her, the day is done. She doesn't take the job home with her, thinking and figuring and planning out new projects, as some of her colleagues do. It's a conversation we often have; we know others who would say, without missing a beat, that what they do for a living is the thing they're 'called to do'. Not my mother. And so far, not me. And it often gets me thinking: is there something wrong with that picture?

There's a lot of talk these days about finding that which is your life's purpose; your 'dream', your 'big pursuit', your 'meant to do'. Much of the time, these terms are connected to the stuff we do for a living; our day's work, after all, constitutes a pretty hefty portion of our life's making; if we don't feel called deeply, true to our destined 'duty', when we wake up on a Monday morning, then clearly we're doing the wrong thing, right? 

But what if our 'dream' has nothing to do with our nine-to-five? Our money-making? What if the thing I feel called to do has more to do with my home life, and less to do with my economic offering to the world? Faced with the question, 'What do you really love to do?', I find myself becoming filled with worry, because I don't really have an answer to that question, not the kind of answer that I assume such a question is seeking. I don't answer, 'help others', 'promote peace', 'make things', 'teach people', though sure, in certain degrees, in certain arenas, I do love to do those things. I hope I am doing them. So does everybody, probably. Instead, my answers follow along a more private line: I love to put on my headphones and go running, I say. I love to talk to my mother, my father, my sisters. I really love to cook and listen to pod-casts. I really love going to movies and eating really-bad-really-good popcorn. I really love reading in bed, swimming in Flathead Lake, walking my dog, harvesting my garden, getting a new haircut. Can I do any of these things for a living? Don't any of these things constitute my 'dream'?

Or what if the answer to the question What do I want to do with my one precious, fragile, fleeting life? is this: I want to surround myself with people I love, who truly, unreservedly, love me back. I want to be a mother someday, and give another good life to the world. I want to have a happy home. I want to be a generous and patient partner. I want to read good things, eat good things, go to beautiful places, come home again, laugh an incredible amount, sleep good sleeps, drink a little, use my body, learn new things, keep holding tight to my faith, keep keeping on as best as can be done.

Maybe we don't have to put constraints around the 'dream' question; there's the hope that we won't mind too much the thing we do for our day's work, there's even the chance that we'll love it best, but I don't believe it should be all. I don't think we should be afraid to say, when called to discover the thing we're meant to do, that we simply want to do the handful of things that bring us to our center happiness. It's the answer my mother and I always ultimately come to, whenever we have the dream debate. And it's never a new revelation to say so, but it always bears repeating.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Seventeenth Summer

It's when the lilacs begin to bloom, come late spring, that I always feel the urge to re-read a rather silly, but sort of lovely, little book. Seventeenth Summer was written in 1942 by Maureen Daly. A quick internet search of Ms. Daly doesn't reveal great abundance; she wrote Summer when she was still in college, presumably in the late 1930s or early 1940s, and she went on to write other novels for 'young people'. It would be easy to assume that once she married, Daly went on to lead a rather conventional mid-twentieth century life; she was a woman, after all, and the time period would have easily placed her in apron and house-dress, a gaggle of children at her table. But Daly did otherwise. When she married the writer William P. McGivern in 1947, he didn't stow her away in the suburbs; instead, they wrote together, chronicling their travels to Africa, Spain, and Ireland. No mention of children in my research. No mention of house-wifery. Daly was a writer from a very young age, and she lived her life as such, pursuing a passion that may not have brought her incredible fame or fortune, but one that answered in her a simple and elemental need. 

I'm not really sure why I love so the life that Daly lived. I'm not really sure why I love her book Seventeenth Summer, which, by most standards, is overly simplistic and nostalgic. But I do love these things. I take great comfort in the fact of their existence. Seventeenth Summer is a simple tale; it's about a quiet girl named Angie who graduates from high school and begins a summer romance with one Jack Duluth, a popular but humble basketball star from the high school across town who now drives his father's bakery delivery truck. Angie has college designs; Jack, on the other hand, will live out the rest of his life in a small town, working for his father's business. The story is about Angie's first brush with romance and freedom, but in its own quiet way, it's also a commentary on the way small town life--and the way our families--can so easily, so stealthily, encircle us with their comforting but sometimes stifling familiarity and refuse to let us go.

There is a heaviness in Daly's writing. Angie's mother is kind and keeps a clean house, but she also sleeps a lot, pulling the blinds against the summer heat for long afternoon naps. Angie's older sister Lorraine returns home from college for the summer with fashionable clothes and a grown-up air, but she also spends a lot of time fussing in the bathroom and dating 'shady' men who have certain expectations. None of this is examined outright; Daly simply puts it on the page, surrounding these muted realities with descriptions of McKnight's drugstore on a Saturday night, and the way Angie and Jack's romance strengthens as the summer passes by.

This is a book about a girl coming to life. Sure, she falls in love with Jack, but she also falls in love with the things that surround her. Angie loves life. She loves the way her fingers feel in the garden's earth when she harvests beans for her mother. She loves the way the wild grasses by the train tracks scratch her bare legs as she walks with Jack. She notices the heavy shadows below her father's eyes when he returns home from work; she sees the red imprint of fabric pattern on her sister's cheek when she wakes from sleep.

I love Seventeenth Summer because it is simple, but also because it carries a deep awareness of the weight of life. It doesn't seek to give answers or explanations for this weight; I think Daly wrote because she was an observer. She watched people. She took notice. I know next to nothing of her; still, I like to imagine that she sought to live the way she wrote--paying attention to that which is beautiful and transformational beneath the catchings of a routine life. There is beauty in weeds by railroad tracks, if you let them brush your bare summer legs and you happen to find yourself with a boy in a clean white shirt. Somehow, as Daly seemed to recognize, seeing this kind of beauty becomes easier when the seasons turn, and we sleep with windows open to the smell of night rain and blooming lilacs.

I turn to Seventeenth Summer as a kind of physical calling; my world has just become lush, and I want a story that understands what this season prods again to life: the truth that the months of most unencumbered vitality throw into greater relief the heavy living that darker seasons nourish. That in all of its miraculous abundance, summer is the season of greatest bittersweet.

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Found Poems

Once a month, I lead a writing group at the public library. There is mostly constant turnover every month, which I've come to see as a kind of blessing in disguise: those who are old hands bring their familiarity, their continuity. Those who are new always have something to add that wasn't there before. This month, a new member of the group brought us this idea: Found Poems. The way she explained it--and the way I understood it--is that Found Poems are poems created from writing that already exists on the page. Take a book. A magazine. A newspaper. Circle words. Find poetry in the stuff that's before you. Piece the words together as a stream, or use them to birth your own new thoughts.

This girl was fantastic; she read us her work, and we were all floored. Amazed and eager to try our hand at this kind of creation. And we did, and it was wonderful.

I left the writing group feeling so buoyed by the amount of creativity that exists in the world; often, it comes before us when we're not even looking, and when it does, it takes us by the nape of the neck and tugs us into wakening. I've got to pay better attention.

I didn't study poetry in school, but on the timeline of my writing life, poetry came early (albeit the angst ridden, dramatic stuff of teenagers) and sometimes when I sit down to write, I realize that what I really feel like writing is a poem. But, I tell myself, that's not what you went to school for. That wasn't your 'focus'. So what? So I don't know how to do it? Bull.

Julia Cameron tells us that at bottom, we're all writers. We're all aiming to communicate; we're all constantly practicing the art of the word; we're all essentially seeking the best vessel for our story. The vessel is going to change depending on what we're needing to say, and that's okay. Pay attention. Let the story be carried the way it wants to be carried.

So for this Sunday in early May, the vessel of the Found Poem:


If the prophet came to my house, I'd show him the exposed pipes
in my basement.
'Bones,' he'd say, and we'd be in agreement,
the single understanding of structure a uniting force
for which I am grateful.

I'll abandon the prophet after one month, 
and rake up a new journey,
my own chorus a silent but pregnant calling of blessings
anointing the page with predawn feedings of the war that still
is asking to be fought. 

Mine are battlefields of flowering weeds,
careful where you tread.
There are hidden mines
trick wires
snares as thin and sturdy
as fishing line
ready to catch you up.


The perfect farewell would not be a farewell at all. 
I am meant to protect, take care, of what I know, and what I know
is you.
How to protect what is no longer around me? 
We two, are victims of previous floods; a lot of our old trees are down, 
and we mourn the sparrows that lived among them.

Once I told you this story.
On a Sunday, in the California summer, the cat caught a bird,
delivered her into the house
I spent an hour wondering at the fluttering,
the threshing, desperate, muffled
sound that filled the room
until I saw her, wing mangled,
behind the drape of curtain on the floor.

Gather her up with bare hands
and take her to the lilac bush, blooming. 
Place her between the roots, a heady blossom
hanging low to shade her.
Then walk away. Do not stay. 
Not our business how wild things die. 
Theirs is an alter too big for us.

Thanks for reading. 


Friday, April 13, 2012

Gratitude Month Week Two: The Kingdom of Now. A Collection.

Do not hurry; do not rest. Though even He rested, one day.

Some moments, spent missing you. 
Other moments, spent missing not one single square inch of you.

Dog's life is shorter than mine; let him stop to smell everything. 

The now of waking: what kind of sky, through the threadbare curtain.
The now of waking: the cat, less her collar, comes in through an open window, paws wet with night rain, examining the thin skin of my eyelid with curious nose. She loves me.

My mother's voice is calm when she tells me the news, but even in this calm we are both thinking: nothing else matters, but this. 

Put my face over the coffee grounds as the steaming water seeps through; half the reason why, anyway.

My father gave me the carved wind spiral from the house; after a heavy wind I go to reorder its lines of wood and spend the afternoon with cedar fingers.

  On the bus, a girl with a rope of beautiful hair bound to her head with a glass comb. 

Through the wall, the low vibrations of my neighbors, talking to their baby.

The now of the house plant: You need more time to grow your roots, I say. You, too, says the houseplant.

Three new blossoms of the African Violet, timid before the grey window light.

A body strong enough to cover seven miles and more.

The Moonflower that has survived the fall and winter indoors; that is beginning to thrive, give new growth. With luck and encouragement, it will bloom for one night in late summer, its white blossom a single, unfurling trumpet under a dark September sky. 

Ask only to be worthy. 
With luck and encouragement. 

 Nothing else matters. But this.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Gratitude Month Week One: The Past. Or: This One's Called, 'Titanic'.

As interested as I am in the Freudian theory that most of our adult emotions, perspectives, reactions, and nuances stem from long submerged childhood experiences, I have a difficult time putting that interest into practice. I'm sure Freud is right; my past certainly does dictate a great deal of my present, but I have a hard time doing the work of examining my childhood. I don't feel a great amount of nostalgia for my childhood; in fact, if I'm being brutally honest, I find the romancing of childhood influence and memory rather cliche. This reaction isn't born of a bad upbringing, quite the contrary; I had, by most standards, an extremely blessed childhood: married parents, close siblings, animals to care for, toys to play with, healthy food, birthday presents and play dates and family vacations and warm beds and lullabies. I was rarely punished, nor was I overly spoiled. I respected my parents and genuinely loved them. I genuinely loved (love) my sisters. I suppose my disinterest in the deep analysis of my childhood might stem from the very fact that it was a good childhood; I don't want to color something pure with too much interpretation; I'd rather just let what was, be what it was.

As such, when I was sitting down to practice Gratitude Month, week one, in which I'm asked to recall and give thanks for a specific childhood influence, I found myself coming up dry. As a blanket statement, I will say: I am thankful--immensely, forevermore--for every single influence of my childhood. For every kind hand, word, action, deed, and gift that, for some miraculous act of random blessing, I was bestowed with. It is easy to look upon my childhood with simplicity and gratitude. Deed done. Where I have a bit more trouble, when focusing my gratitude towards the past, is in giving thanks for the girl I was at twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. The girl I was when I was deep in the heart of the worst place of being young--the terrible, wrenching, lonely, self-loathing place called 'Awkward'.

I sometimes joke about this time with my sisters, saying that my 'awkward phase' lasted from about age ten until twenty-two, and while it's undoubtedly true that I have spent the majority of my life feeling 'awkward' in one way or another, my true period of teenage angst only recalls itself as lasting because its contours were so sharp and gritty; I've long been tattooed up with the humiliations of that time, and while the marks have faded, they remain as a reminder that many of my adult sufferings stem not from the submerged terrors of a four or five year old, getting lost in a grocery store, but from my thirteen and fourteen year old self, desperate to pass the age-old high school test of survival.

It seemed fitting, then, to devote a bit of page space to the girl who causes me the greatest grimace, as I feel it is high time that she be forgiven for not knowing what she was not required to know at such a time: that living is more--ought to be more--than an exhausting hustle to be liked. This is her:

Bad haircut. Acne. An obsession with Leonardo DiCaprio. An ancient Bruce Springsteen cassette in the tape deck. Makeup that she doesn't know how to use. An older sister she is desperately envious of. A little sister who still wants her to play Barbie. A crush on the same old boy--the soccer player, the leader of the pack.

The year I am thirteen, my grandmother is living in our house. She is dying. Her heart is failing her. Her hospital bed and tray of medication, her oxygen machine, fill one room. At night there are nurses who sit up and listen for her call so my mother, consumed by grief, can attempt an hours sleep. My older sister has her license and goes out driving; her hair is long; she has friends. My little sister is five; I still sometimes play with her, setting up tiny houses with plastic furniture and calling our mother in to look at our interior design skills. It is a dark winter. The year I am thirteen, I go to see Titanic a total of eight times. A movie ticket--at night--is five dollars. I use up all of my allowances. I beg my mother to take me. My father. I drag along my best friend Megan, who is unimpressed. I hate my hair. My skin. My clothes. I want to be like my older sister. The house where I live does its best to emulate its normal loving aura, but the truth of it is dying, and eventually death, and all the living that we're required to do after. My mother kept living, through and after her grief; we all kept living, but it's no wonder that there are whole segments of that time--months--that hold no clear memory for me.

Last night I went to see Titanic again, in the movie theater. The ticket was eleven dollars. My little sister, who is now nearly twenty, went with me. We joked as we drove to the theater; remember how many times you went to see it when it first came out? I laughed at the girl I used to be; I rolled my eyes at her adolescent naivety. Sitting in the theater though, I found myself pulled back to that long ago dark winter, and I found that I could recall, with surprising clarity, what it had felt like to escape from the house to the movie theater; I could recall the rough fabric on the seat cushions; the stick of shoe sole to dried soda; the way I could escape, could hide myself, for a few hours, in story.

I didn't consider writing as an actual pursuit until much later in my life, but when I think about it, when I am forced to pause and remember, I see that I have been writing--I have been seeking the escape of story--all my life: writing poorly worded fairy tales on legal pads in the catacombs of the public library while I waited for my mother to finish her shift at the reference desk; writing horribly cliched poems that seemed all-powerful for my high school English classes; filling journal page after journal page with my latest demoralizing angst or fleeting swell of hopefulness. It is when I recall my life thus far in this vein, that I am apt to look upon the awkward, thirteen-year-old girl in the movie theater with forgiveness. Gratitude. Thank you, I want to say, for knowing that what we needed then, in the midst of deep sorrow, was a good story. Over and over again.

Thanks for reading. (This was a long one.)


The Cynic, The Believer

I know a good woman who is embarking on what she is calling a Pilgrimage of Gratitude this April. This Pilgrimage is to be divided into four parts: past, present, future, and all that is. Each week in April, she--and inspired others--will focus gratitude towards a different part of their lives, seeking to call forth a feeling of appreciation for what the world has, does, and will grant us. It's a humble and ambitious pursuit, and I'm going to do my best to manifest or mimic some of the idea's earnest spirit as I attempt such a Pilgrimage myself.

Such a pursuit, however, challenges a great dichotomy that exists in me; the tug of war between my believer and cynic selves has long been a present battle, though the older I get, the better able I am to find and keep a place of balance between the two poles. Fervently practicing a month of outright gratitude, however, sends my cynic siren flashing. I am often overcome with gratitude for what the world has given me, for the people who surround me with their love, but rarely do I make that gratitude a tangible thing; rather, I allow the feeling to reside privately, powerfully, hoping that the energy of silent gratitude is strong enough to make itself known.

That energy is powerful, no doubt, and as a prayerful person, I'm going to continue my own personal practice of giving silent thanks, but I'm also going to practice something new, something that seeks to assuage the believer in me, the girl who wants to know more about yoga and meditation; Buddha and yin and yang energies; the universe and our small place in it, for a very small time. I'm going to practice open gratitude--for my past, my present, my future. I'm going to write about the things I've forgiven, accepted, and learned to give thanks for--here. In this space. My cynic self will be deep inside, rolling her eyes. My believer self will be happy. I'll do my best to put myself squarely in the middle, and see what emerges.

Next post: trying my best to feel gratitude for my thirteen-year-old self.

Check out this lady's Pilgrimage of Gratitude for yourself: Vital Being Wellness

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Learned Love

In the pursuit of better learning myself, and attempting to nail down, in some concrete way (if that's even possible), a greater understanding of what external forces define my happiness, I've lately found myself contemplating the things that I love that have been introduced to me through someone else in my life. Specifically, I've been contemplating those things introduced to me during the handful of love seasons I've been lucky enough to know in the last decade or so of my still young life. I often find myself curious over learned loves, more than the loves I've discovered myself, because I wonder: did I love these things because the one I loved, loved them? Or did I honestly discover things--songs, books, philosophies, foods, locations and lifestyles--that my soul had silently been yearning for?

This question was with me today as I drove the East Side highway back towards Missoula after teaching my two afternoon classes in Hamilton. I'm fortunate to have the use of a University vehicle when I make these twice-weekly trips, and even luckier still, I get a vehicle pimped out with an i-Pod hookup, something my nearly twenty-year-old pick-up-truck cannot boast. Needless to say, I work those speakers in the little red Ford Focus when it's a sunny afternoon in late March, and the highway meanders between open fields dotted with new birth, new growth, hopeful life.

As I was turning onto the stretch of road that traces, in a rather straight line, the view of the cut Bitterroot Mountains out my driver's side window, a song came on that I almost moved to skip. Just for a moment, though, and for what was long enough, I stopped myself, and listened. It had been my instinct to move past the song and on to another, because the music, in an instant, reminded me of a person and a way of life I've lost, and thus, made me remember pain. Once I'd loved the song because there was a man I'd loved who'd loved it. I listened for him, hoping to see the world, see sound, see instrument and lyric the way he did. In the season of love, I gave little thought to the idea that I might actually love the song, all on my own. I simply knew that the man loved it; therefore, I loved it too.

Let me clarify: I know myself. I know who I am. I know, at the core of my existence, what makes me whole and happiest. I would not jump off a cliff simply because my lover wanted to; I would not eat a plateful of oysters simply because my lover espoused their delicacy. I know what I like and don't like, but like most people, when I am working to get to know and understand someone, I want to give their interests and passions due diligence; I seek to figure them out by experiencing that which gives them joy. Is not love the pursuit of understanding, admiration, acceptance, and communion? Do we not reach these states by opening our minds to the perspectives and emotions and passions of others? I believe so.

A strange thing happened to me as I continued to listen to this song; I felt as if some small part of me was becoming quenched after a season of dryness. I loved these sounds, this low tone, this vibration of note, that extended lyric. I loved it. The song still reminded me of the person and life I'd lost--and I believe that it always will, but I also believe that that reminding is a great blessing: in the seasons of love I've yet known, one hundred and more loves have come my way, brought before me by good men.

What the world has to offer is owned by none. One man, he taught me ocean tides, but the tides are not his; they offer themselves to be loved by anyone, purely. Another man, he taught me mountains. Long I'd gazed after them, been comforted by them, been home among them; now I know them in greater intricacy, and how in love I am. They belong to none but everyone.

Maine. Mountain peaks. The strum of a shy guitar. The punch of fist to risen dough. The scent of wood smoke. A neatly stacked wood pile. Nag Champa. Lobster claws. Clean cut of wood; well sanded and smoothed. Hamburgers and sweet potato fries. Fleet Foxes. Townes Van Zandt. Early to bed. Early to rise. Sleep atop a mountain; climb down in the morning light.

All this life, available to love, learned from another. I am forever grateful.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, March 26, 2012

City, brimming.

Washington D.C. is full to brimming: Tulips. Daffodils. Gnarled Magnolia limbs with waxy white and scarlet petals. Hundreds of pink blossomed trees. Blossoms overhead, still unfurling, still clinging. Fallen blossoms underfoot on wet cement and asphalt, on the sheen of windshields and the black grooves of car tires; the newest hue is cherry blossom pink. Everything, everything, a carpet, an emergence, of lush, new, life. The slender tree that grows from the bricked patio outside my sister and her fiance's apartment is two lives at once: brown branch and magenta bloom--one gives something necessary to the other: a grounding force, a flourish of hopeful birth. In this place, I remember: humidity. My hair follicles swell, my skin becomes dewy, my running clothes are slow to relinquish their dampness. It is not yet the difficult season, when humidity meets heat, so I am able to know this swollen air with fondness; I let it quench the dryness that a Montana winter has bestowed. No more nosebleeds here. No more cracked skin.

Washington D.C. is full to brimming: People. Men in clean suits, their shoes polished mirrors. Women in heels and dresses. They know where they are going: this train track, that bus stop, that corner, this crossing. Everyone knows how to rush: keep moving, don't look up, don't apologize, go your own way. After three days I am better at following my sister's small force through the crowd, but I still fear the grate of the escalator, imagining a tumble and metal teeth on the skin of my forehead, a stinging humiliation worse than struck limbs. I hold on to the railing; I try to look as if I know what I am doing. Amidst this mad push, it is easy for me to let loose my judgment; I want people to stop honking, to stop forcing their way through, to look where they are going, to smile in passing. Sometimes this happens, but more often the goal amidst the chaos seems to simply be the destination, the getting done, the surviving. The greatest loneliness is felt in the full room, the throng and bustle. Yet in the bustle I have found connection: the woman at the corner table in the restaurant has a laugh like my mother's. The man sitting across from me on the D2 bus is reading the novel I loved last July. The girl standing on the street corner wears the dress I admired in the storefront window. Every single racing soul takes heart at the trees in bloom, at their pathway now strewn with petals. In the crush of the hurried life, these small relations--notice them, keep them. Call them shared life. Call them blessed. Know them to be before you for a reason.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Feelings. Plus Toaster Oven Fires.

 Once, when I was in college, I started a fire in my grandparents' kitchen. Two fires, actually. One in the toaster oven, and one in the microwave. I'm not quite sure why I still remember this day so clearly; the fires were small and easily contained; my grandparents never even knew; nothing was ruined save for a piece of toast and a leftover cup of coffee. Still, when I think about my grandparents, and, especially, the house in which they lived for nearly sixty years, among one thousand memories, complete and disparate, is this one: my nineteen-year-old nervous self, trying to be helpful by making breakfast, waving a dishtowel at a smoking toaster oven, hugely embarrassed and desperate to keep my clumsiness, my mistake, hidden.

Keep myself hidden. Keep my mistakes, awkwardness, embarrassment, sadness, pride, silliness, ignorance, jealousy, judgement...hidden. Is this a good thing? Writing this blog seems to embody a kind of all-out opening to me; a stripping of veils and curtains and comfortable clothes. Each time I sit down to write, I am eager; I feel like I'm finally tapping into the core of who I am, of what I like to do, and this is wonderful, of course. It's also a little selfish, and it's a lot scary. My blog-post writing regimen goes something like this: 1) Get an idea in the middle of (grading papers, going for a run, cooking dinner, cleaning the bathtub, walking the dog, eating oatmeal, teaching class, running errands...any activity that requires me to be focusing on something else). 2) Sit down at the computer and write (slowly, quickly, in bursts of clarity and distraction). 3) Re-read every single word--several times--to at least rid myself of the gnawing notion of a word missed or spelled wrong. 4) Post. 5) Feel good. Feel good because...I'll say it: I'm a writer, and I've just written. What comes next, after that thirty-minute window of warm glow, is this voice: Who says you're so special? Who says that what you've just said hasn't been said a thousand times before, in a thousand better ways? People who read this are going to think you are: long-winded, redundant, unoriginal, pompous, irritating; they're going to think that you spend way too much time contemplating how you feel.

This last one is the one that sticks at me the most, and I've come to believe that the insults (imagined or real) that cut us most deeply are the sharpest knives because somewhere way back (or not so way back) in our minds, we know them to be true. We think them, ourselves. I do spend way too much time contemplating my feelings. I am, as my father would say, a 'naval-gazer'. I worry and wonder, endlessly, at my own shyness, my own seeming lack of confidence, at my desire to hide away all mistakes (oven fires and bad haircuts included). I spend inordinate amounts of times trying to figure out the feelings of myself and others; I read self-help books; I practice arm-chair psychology. A part of this may be because I'm a woman (a generalization I feel I'm allowed to make since, well, I'm one of the guilty party), but the other part, I've come to realize, is that I was born of a family of naval-gazers. Why then, if it's in my blood, do I often feel so apologetic when some of that self-analysis gets out in the open?

I have a wonderful family; we love to talk, debate, analyze, figure out. We are also--almost every single one of us--incredibly introverted. We love to talk, sure, but mostly with each other, and even then we catch ourselves apologizing for taking up so much of each others' time, for 'bogarting' the conversation, for holding forth or making proclamations, even if we might know exactly what we're talking about. We're talkers; we're also 'I don't know-ers'. I was born to it. It's in every cell of my being.

Which is why, of course, I feel such a heady mix of joy and remorse when I sit down to write here, in this space. This space is my holding forth, my grand proclamation, my ultimate bogart. Why should anyone want to know what I am feeling or thinking? I actually don't really know why, but the truth is: I don't really care (right now, at least.) For sure, there are things about ourselves we ought to grapple with silently; my jealousy doesn't do anyone any good (especially myself), so I'm not going to talk about it. My judgments are misplaced, and they never, ever, come from a place of love, so I'm not going to talk about them. In my life, I want to strive to be humble (even while writing a blog all. about. me.), so I'm not going to talk about how great I think I am. I've come to learn (after too long not seeing) that you can't change anyone but your own self, and shouldn't ever try, so I'm not going to complain about anyone else. There are also things, though, that I'm coming to think are important to admit, to stop hiding from. We're all awkward. We're all clumsy. We all think we're uncool. We all worry that what we're saying might be wrong. (Right?) One of the reasons I love my family so much--and why I love the close circle of friends I've cultivated in my life--is because in the midst of our analytical, long-winded, often emotionally charged, often alcohol softened conversations, no one tries to pretend like they've got it all figured out. We may take turns holding forth, but we laugh at ourselves while we're doing it, and we give thanks afterwards.

I'm not really sure what to say now. I've got a cat on my lap, vying for my affection, a dog scratching at the front door, and the nagging feeling that I started off this post by writing about lighting a kitchen on fire, which really relates in no way to anything I've just said. Undoubtedly, after I finish this post, my blog-pride hangover will be immense, but I'll go for that 'not caring' thing and try to bring it home:

Once, when I was in college, I started a fire in my grandparents' kitchen. Two small fires. Easily managed, when you got right down to it, but at nineteen I left their house feeling awkward and sort of dangerous and irresponsible...over a toaster oven fire. Over a flame two inches high. Over a ruined piece of toast. When I remember that nineteen-year-old girl, I want to look at her and say: laugh. I want her to make a noise in the kitchen instead of silently fanning the flames; I want her to say: "Oh dear. I seem to have started a fire in your kitchen!" She says this. She says this, and in comes her grandmother, who loves her. Together they put out the fire, throw away the charred toast, dump out the scalding coffee. Later her grandmother will say, "I do that all the time. I know exactly how you feel."

Thanks for reading.