Sunday, December 30, 2007

marcie among clouds


Friday night, marcie’s friends gathered to celebrate her life – the person she was. We pulled together and created a party that marcie surely was wishing we’d thrown while she was here on earth, just as we were wishing deeply to have her with us in the flesh.

In a brick courtyard that is attached to a metal smith’s studio, we lit a great big bonfire and sat around it to remember. At the front of our semi circle was a Mexican Day-of-the-Dead offrenda filled with the colors and qualities and objects that made marcie. Bouquets of orange and red roses with peacock feathers poking out, loose roses and other flower petals scattered across the white tablecloth. At the center of the alter, a photo of laughing marcie – her head tossed back slightly, her eyes turned out to us, bright, happy, shining, alive – blue sky and mountains in the background. A plate of food Marcie would’ve loved to indulge in – homemade enchiladas (she was so proud of her own enchiladas), crawfish queso (seafood being the one creature-type she could not permanently give up during her long years as a vegetarian), guacamole, potatoes au gratin, brie and bread, hummus, spinach dip, bread pudding, strawberries and blueberries and pineapple. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, a bottle of red wine, a bottle of framboise, a bottle of chimay. The Book of Birthdays, open to her day – August 19 – The Day of Startling Surprises. (When a friend helped sort through marcie’s belongings after her death, she came across astrological charts Marcie had completed for many of her friends.) Incense burning in a praying Buddha burner, a deck of cards, Frida Kahlo images, photos of marcie’s son, marcie’s sister, marcie’s husband, marcie’s friends. To honor her as an artist, a camera and an old wooden box full of charcoal pastels. To honor the pleasure she took in aesthetics and her own femininity, glitter scattered across the alter, earrings and a broach, draped scarves that looked like her, sandalwood beads hung around the frame that held her photo. A neatly-rolled joint placed in a small box, because marcie not only loved weed, she took great pride in her ability to roll a joint. She did it with such drawn out dramatics.

Off to the side of the offering, a table was set with a scrapbook and postcards – Frida Kahlo postcards and cheeky 1950s images with sarcastic phrases. Everyone took a moment to write a memory or a message on the back of the cards. One old friend opened to the first page of the book and wrote the story of how he and marcie came to be friends. A story written to her young son.

marcie had an endless playlist of songs on her Myspace page. We hooked a computer up to a speaker, and her music poured into the courtyard – Nina Simone, Ween, Billie Holiday, Sia, Lee Scratch Perry – lots of reggae, some dub. We were missing some things – Stevie Wonder, Brand New Heavies, Sade. But nothing felt missing, except marcie alive.

Over the last month, we had set up a flickr account and people had been uploading photos. Another of marcie’s friends took the flickr photos and created a slideshow that we projected onto the cinderblock wall of the studio. We watched her grow in front of us – marcie as a child transforming to marcie as a mother.

Red lights lit the walls and chili pepper lights draped the inside of the white tent that hovered over her offrenda.

We spoke of her – her bossiness, her nurturing, her humor, the two-hours you had to set aside to have a phone conversation with marcie. There we all were – the collection of marcie’s friends, all of us with such strong personalities, all of us so different and distinctive – the many sides of marcie together like facets on a brilliant cut stone. We laughed and cried. We cherished and shared her. We gave her credit for all she loved to take credit for – “So and so are married to each other because of ME,” she might declare of 4, 5, 6 sets of her married friends. She loved to be the connecter – the one who was the reason that various groups of people intersected, knew one another. What a full and gorgeous picture of our friend we all evoked together.

We spoke of her inherent coolness – how her sister marisa had taught marcie her joint-rolling skills. How she was the only freshman we knew who lived in an apartment. How natural and easy she made it look for an eighteen-year-old to mother a dog. The way she blared her music from stereo speakers. The way she teased and demanded. The particular stomp with which she walked – “I am here. I am at the helm.”

One of marcie’s most cherished friends, an older man who was responsible for getting marcie her first job as a waitress at a 24-hour diner, spoke, in his booming Barry White voice, of the fact that marcie had no skills, she couldn’t wait tables worth a damn, but what saved her ass is that she was so damn bossy. And we all agreed that marcie knew exactly how to command a group of unruly drunk frat boys at 3 a.m. Of her, he said, "marcie was like the daughter I never wanted, but I got her anyway."

I’ll carry the mood of the evening – the way it felt to be wrapped in the arms, voices and personalities of marcie’s many friends, similar to the comfort and security of being swaddled in marcie’s great big bed, her Chihuahau mina curled against me. (My friend e recalled how when marcie was working a late shift or out for the night, mina would sleep in e’s bed. Marcie would stomp into e’s room at 3, 4, 5 a.m. and yank mina into her own arms to carry her to the mother-bed.) I’ll also carry the weight of sadness that hung in the air. How can I not feel both the joy of celebrating marcie and the weight of our collective loss?

As the night was ending, I could not stop fixating on the photo of laughing marcie. It is the image that makes my heart both smile and weep. I wanted to hug it to my chest– burn it into my skin. It’s an image I’ll also carry: laughing marcie, smiling-eyes marcie, marcie among mountains and clouds – looking over us all with admiration and delight, occasionally sending a gust of wind our way. Tickled marcie who I love.

Monday, November 26, 2007

too full.

Thanksgiving is THE holiday for me. It is the holiday for which I have fondest childhood memories. It is the time of year that, as a grown person, I begin anticipating weeks out. It means these things: a too crowded house, savory smells from a warm oven, board games and competition, my mom's fanciest plates set on a table that travels a straight line for miles (or until there is nowhere further it can extend), comfort, banana bread, cranberry bread, herb bread, bickering with my sisters (over which way to make the gravy is the BEST way, or which way to marinate the bird is the BEST way). When I was younger, Thanksgiving meant cousins. Now it means nieces, nephews and brothers-in-law, and it has always meant being full. Full in every sense, and also, with my mother. Thanksgiving was special because my mother made it so. It was her holiday, the one she passed on to us.

Last year Thanksgiving fell 3 months after my mother had died. Instead of traveling to North Carolina to cook a big dinner in the new home my parents had built - the one large enough to fit all of their kids and grandkids during this holiday - we rented a beach house.

It was a startling Thanksgiving, not because of any jolting event, but startling in its air of melancholy. The evening we arrived, there was a thunderstorm with wind so strong it shook the stilts our house stood upon. On our last day, sitting on the balcony, wind striking my face, I cried in front of my sisters. I cried because I missed my mother. I cried in fear that my father would remarry too soon - before I was ready to accept another female presence in his home - my parents' home. I remember my oldest sister saying, "If dad marries someone else, it doesn't mean he loved mom any less. It means he had a really good marriage and that he wants to be in that kind of relationship again." This made me cry more - the injustice that he was a widower.

At thirty-two, I love my dad in the way that a tiny girl loves her dad. I still, in his presence, feel like the five-year-old who used to tickle his feet while he slept, who accompanied him to the barber shop around the corner and later played barber on his hair while he sat in his Lazy Boy. The way it feels to love my dad is the way it felt to thrust my body on the floor in a tantrum when he was headed to the store and I could not go, the way it felt to have him take me to a movie when I was in first grade, the way it felt when he praised the made-up ballet I danced in our kitchen as we listened to the Love Story soundtrack on vinyl. Even now, when my dad looks at me, I can see him, a younger man, admiring his baby daughter. It's a love frozen in childhood.

I suppose I have been angry with my father for some time now. Since his birthday the October before that beach-house Thanksgiving. I had flown up to stay with him that weekend, and on my last day in North Carolina, some of his longtime friends arrived from Michigan to visit for a few days. That evening I went off to be alone in another room - to leave the grown ups to their talking. Curled up under a blanket - one my mom made and one I covet - just over a month after her passing, I heard my dad tell his old college buddies of his lonliness. I heard him, fragile and weak, explain that he was not the kind of person who could be alone. Before I could know to cover my ears, to turn up the volume on the television, they were all speaking of his options - of what the situation would be were he to remarry, of how he should go about seeking a new bride. I wanted to rush down the stairs and lambast them all - tell them I was just upstairs and I could HEAR what they were talking about, and did they think this was APPROPRIATE? And HOW DARE THEY - ANY OF THEM. And my mom had only been dead a month. One month. One long, lonely, sad, depressive month. I would have shouted every word.

Instead, I called my husband that night and cried on the phone, unable to speak of the reason why. At the airport the next day, I called two of my sisters. I sobbed the story to them. I felt for the first time: I am not supposed to be a little girl anymore. I am not allowed to be a little girl anymore.

Last Thanksgiving, sitting on the balcolny, I remember my sister - which one I don't know - saying, "He's not going to get married tomorrow. I don't think you need to worry about it." But the weight of the conversation I'd overheard a month earlier remained with me - too heavy to lift. It just sat on my chest. Now, this Thanksgiving, if I were to have blinked my eyes, that last Thanksgiving, would indeed, seem like yesterday. It does feel like yesterday; so he was getting married tomorrow. He was.

And during that yesterday-Thanksgiving when we cooked a big meal in an unfamiliar rent house, the ocean rumbling at our doorstep, we had also sent my mother off. We scattered her ashes over the Atlantic, bid it to take her away while we prayed for her soul to rest. After, we walked slowly along the shore back to our beach house. Inside, I remember that John Denver singing Country Roads spontaneously began playing, mid-song, out of my brother-in-law's computer. My brother-in-law said, "That's funny, I had a different play list going than the one this song is on." We sisters had all looked up at one another as the words, "Country Roads/Take me home/To the place I belong" crept into the room. Then we just listened, quiet and certain that our mother was saying hello. Or goodbye. Or that she was saying, "I am with you on this Thanksgiving." The holiday that is my mother.

Only a few weeks since his surprise marriage to a woman he met in India through a matrimonial search, my dad returned to the US alone, but with plans to file all the necessary papers to sponsor his new wife so she can join him in America. He called me a couple of times, and both times, I was not near my phone. I knew I needed to call him back, but I felt angry and wordless. The way I finally mustered the strength to call was to tell myself before I dialed,"I'm going to pretend my dad is not married." That is what I did. I called, and I told myself, "I am speaking to my dad who is a widower who lives alone in North Carolina and is not remarried." This was the weekend after Halloween - so only 3 weeks before Thanksgiving. He said he hoped we could all come to North Carolina for Thanksgiving.

I could not respond. The thought hushed me inside and out. In those weeks, I struggled. I cried. I thought. If I went - it would be the last time we would have Thanksgiving as the family unit familiar to me since his new wife has not yet arrived. And it would be our first Thanksgiving in the North Carolina house - which they had very much been intending when they built that home. Yet, if I went, I would be angry. And sad. And incapable of asking about or hearing a word about his new wife. No matter what I did, my mother would be a missing person. A missing presence. I did not go.

On Thanksgiving morning, I woke with a swollen heart - both wanting to be with my family and glad to be in my own home in Baton Rouge. We had friends coming - all of our transplant-friends who couldn't make it back to their hometowns. I cleaned my house. Standing at my mantle dusting the colored glass bottles that sit on it, I remembered how my mother had commented on the bottles once when she visited. In an instant, I missed her painfully. I ached in my want for her. I called my oldest sister to say, "I'm just missing my mom." And she said, "It's a hard time. Those are some good memories." And I sobbed, "They are good memories. I just wish it didn't hurt so much to have them." And what could she say. She knew. She knew and agreed.

That evening, eight of us, friends, sat around a table. We each told what we would be doing if we were home with our families. Someone spoke of his pushy grandmother and how her baked goods made it worth having her there. Someone spoke of a super-terrific dance party that was inevitable after having eaten and digested. Someone spoke of his parents embracing his vegetarianism fifteen years earlier and how they would experiment with the latest in vegetarian meat technology. Someone else spoke of the farm she grew up on and the four pies she bakes each year. I spoke of my sisters. Of how we would argue about how to cook everything and how my brothers-in-law would go to the grocery store a hundred times and how it would be crowded and stressful and joyous at once. And I talked about playing board games later in the night. After we ate, more friends arrived. We stood around a fire pit in my backyard, all talking. Talking until two in the morning. Seventeen of us all together. Old friends and new friends meshing just right. Everyone full.

Today, I wondered what Thanksgiving will be next year. I wondered if I will be angry still. I wondered if I could go home and eat turkey with a strange woman. My father's wife, but not my mother. I thought, my dad can't look at me anymore and see a baby daughter. Or can he? Will he see an angry woman and a baby daughter at once? Will he see disappointments and gratitude stewing in one pot the way I do? I thought, now you are supposed to be an adult. You are not supposed to be a girl.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

things i will not quit.

I will not quit this blog, even when I have nothing riveting to share (which is probably more frequently than less).
I will not quit exercising, even on days when it seems like it is doing NOTHING (like today).
I will not quit writing, and working at writing, and trying to become a writer who writes for a reasonable living.

Some things I am having a hard time quitting.
I am having a hard time quitting being angry at my dad for getting remarried when he did and how he did, even if he is happier now. Maybe that makes me angry too.
I am having a hard time quitting procrastinating studying for the GRE, which I take in 15 days (I've studied, just without any real gusto or regiment. I mean, does anyone actually study for the GRE with gusto?)

I am having a hard time quitting being mad about a lot of things. A friend of mine who I've known since I was eleven, but I don't feel like writing about it at the moment. About my mom dying. I'm not good at being angry unless it happens in an explosive outburst that ends in a few seconds to thirty minutes. After that, the way it feels to be angry is uncomfortable and like I don't have a right to feel it - and so in anger, I try to be calm, collected, happy and/or unaffected. But BEING something and FEELING something is two different experiences that can happen simultaneously, and sometimes they align and other times, they do not align.

Right now, I am having a hard time quitting being in a place of feeling, feeling, feeling everything. Both Feeling and Being so emotional and inside of myself that I can't even articulate events, details or observations properly. How can I quit that? Feeling and Being emotional?

I am having a hard time using my words. Remember what teachers tell you when you are little and having a difficult time expressing what's happening inside of you? Use your words. Use your words. Use your words.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

filler.

Today is an amazing day outside. Such a fantastic day that I rode my bike to my favorite coffee shop.

I am sitting on the patio. In fact, I come here just to get a chance to sit on this deck and stare at the way the light comes through the banana leaves and also to catch a glimpse of the evergreen wisteria in bloom, which makes an eggplant colored flower that reminds me of dramatic smoky eye makeup on a woman with stunning eyes – the way it is in fashion spreads.

This deck is what makes this my favorite coffee shop (it’s not the coffee, trust me.). There are also bamboo and some succulents around the deck. It’s an odd mix. I love to see the variety that can grow in south Louisiana. –None of it really goes together; a strange mix and match, which is quintessentially southern for me.

A guy next to me is on his computer and seems to not know the etiquette about music – that you listen to it through headphones. That you are not blessing strangers with your incredible music taste when you let your Itunes play aloud through your computer. How can he not know this? Will Emily Post please write a book: re: blackberries, cell phones, text messaging, ipods, etc? Maybe I'll submit something to Wikipedia.

I am obsessed lately with Andrew Bird, particularly with an album called Weather Systems, and more particularly with a song called Lull.

Some of the lyrics: Being alone/it can be quite romantic/Like Jacques Costeau/underneath the Atlantic/A fantastic voyage/to parts unknown/going to depths/where the sun’s never shown/And I fascinate myself/When I'm all alone.

And more: “I’m all for moderation/but sometimes it seems/moderation itself/can be kind of extreme.

Yesterday, I finally began studying for the GRE. Finally. I felt infuriated as I took the diagnostic test, infuriated that a university uses this information to decipher intelligence. When I came to the math part, I wanted to throw my pen in the air and toss my book out of the window. Why not ask if a person can balance a checkbook? Or figure out a grade percentage in case the person should become a T.A.? Things people use math for.

According to my diagnostic, I might make a total of 1070 at this point. It was almost enough to make me decide I’d just forgo studying and take what I could get. 1070’s not bad, right? But my reading comprehension score was pretty terrible, so I thought it could hurt me as potential English/writing MFA…I should comprehend what I read, shouldn’t I?

I won’t go into how I did on the math portion. But, based upon this reading, what can you infer about the author’s test-taking ability in the math portion of the Graduate Record Examination?

a. The author did so well she does not need to study.
b. The author scored below average when measured against other test takers.
c. The author would be happy if she did not have to take the GRE.
d. The author could not comprehend the equations she was reading.

Did anyone understand this post?? Do you comprehend?

Monday, October 22, 2007

documenting change: six.

About, me, the workout queen!

I made a new rule for myself this past weekend. I WILL NOT, during my training sessions, EVER AGAIN say the words, “I can’t do that” in response to the trainer asking me to try out various exercises.

AND, I’ve lost 5 pounds since I started working with a trainer 2 ½ weeks ago! (Technically, I should say, I've lost 6 pounds since I took all this on in July, but it seems to be happening faster now than at first.) Look out thirty-three. Here comes healthy-me.

(Sort of unrelated to anything, but also related to everything - I bought 2 new pairs of shoes on Friday – my very own retail therapy for feeling somber that day, for having had a hard time at the Y that morning and for being not thrilled about the whole novel comment about my story the previous night. One pair, red patent leather. The other, grass green, but not patent leather. Very happy feet, dressed in red cowboy boots today.)

documenting change: five.

First, there is the weather. It is a windy, wintery gray and amazing day in Baton Rouge.

On being and becoming a writer.

A lot of elements are at play right now. Freelancing. I had two articles come out in October in a local publication. One of them reflects very well the kind of “voice” I can see myself using (with some adjustments/tweaks) for freelance work related to traveling, food, art. I have another article out next month, a story about a local food photographer.

I’m learning through this experience – about working with an editor, revisions, fact checking, working with a deadline (I don’t think I could EVER write for a daily.). It’s exciting to see my name in print, which gives me a mere inkling of what it will feel like to see my name next to a work of fiction in print. But, I know with certainty that this is not my medium of choice.
I’m not a feature writer at heart.

I think in addition to fiction, that I could develop my essay writing skills and try to find venues for essay-like features. –I guess this blog is a way of practicing that (as well as being self-directed therapy). Really, the food article (one of the October freelance pieces) was essayish (It was about getting a cooking lesson from my aunt).

I look back sometimes and want to rip entries out of this blog, but I’m forcing myself to keep everything up for now. I’ll edit the blog down to include only my strongest archives when a year has passed. Or maybe six months?

As for the fiction writing, remember my story – the one that I was certain had an ending given over to me by Flannery O’Conner and O’Henry? Well, I started working with a writing group this month. There are three of us now (all fiction writers, though one has just adapted a short story into a screenplay), and hopefully a screenwriter will join us next time. They read my story (which was nerve-wracking to give over to two near strangers who are published), and both felt blown away by the ending, but not in a good way. They thought it was, as one said, “Cruel.” They felt that I’d given the ending over to a minor character in the story, whereas I’d built it up to be an ending that should’ve belonged to the major character – the hero of the story. And I had been so proud of that ending!

Other things they shared. Both liked my writing. One said, “I saw it was 30 pages, and the first thing I do when I see a story that length is approach it from the standpoint of ‘Where will I make cuts?’ but the writing is good, and I couldn’t find anything to cut.” Funny, because helping me cut it down is exactly what I was hoping for. (He did actually find two parts to cut, and they were parts I'd toyed with cutting - so that was nice - to have the same instinct.)

That comment about nothing to cut led to this one – something I had hoped not to hear – “Are you sure this shouldn’t be a novel? It seems like it could be even longer, the characters more developed.” ARG. That’s just not what you want to hear. But I’ll brag too. They both said plain as day that any grad school would be crazy not to take me, that my writing is strong and I’ve got some killer sentences and scenes - which of course ARE things I want to hear (!).

I’ve had a few days to sit on all of this. It felt really good to do that little critique session – to hear from people who are used to reading fiction for how to improve it, and to hear from people who don’t know me/care about me. It felt, not to seem too silly, but it felt downright exciting for me. I also think that what I’m going to do is work toward making that story really work as a story, but if I get into grad school, maybe I’ll use it to develop a novel out of. I had actually already cut out a good deal of material before I sent it to them to read. I’m glad that next time we’ll be discussing one of their stories. I’m looking forward to practicing my own editing/critical skills with fiction.

Other things I’m working on related to writing – well, there is only one, and that is grad school. I am studying for the GRE, which I take on November 14th. I will be completely thrilled when that is over. I am not the best test taker. I’ll also be thrilled when all of the applications are turned in -February 15th. [And I'll be REALLY glad when I get in somewhere and they tell me they want to give me a full stipend. I gotta hope!...]

Saturday, October 20, 2007

documenting change: four.

On my globe-trotting dad.

As I reported, he left Ghana after only two weeks and jetted off to India after a stop in Dubai. My dad is at once practical and impractical. It’s something I love about him, but also something I loathe, depending on the particulars when this quality comes into play. I’ve tried, in story form, to write about characters who embody this contradiction, but I haven’t got it quite right yet – other than to come up with a great line of dialog: “If I’m a poet, I’m a practical poet.” [NO STEALING LANGAUGE, please. That’s MY line. I own it.]

Two weeks into his stay in India, he emailed us to say he might cut his trip short, that he was already tired of traveling. And a week later, he emailed to say he was getting married.

How does one, oceans away, make sense of this all? Days later, (a mere six days after his 70th birthday - and that milestone birthday is of no small significance to his action) he was married. To a woman twenty years younger. Younger than that, even. Married. I’m trying to get over my embarrassment in saying this, because I know in my heart that embarrassment is not really a productive or even reasonable emotion for this situation.

After days of crying more tears than I knew I was capable of, I began laughing about it. Sarcastically telling my friends: I’m a stepdaughter. My stepmother is just old enough to have been my teenage mom. Oh, and she’s not old enough to be any of my sisters’ mom. I’m so happy.

So, what is this really about? My dad is in a new phase of his life. He is beginning anew. And so have I been. That’s fair. He had my mom for forty-three years, and he loved her. My practical poet dad can be quite romantic, quite sensitive. He cries unabashadly during sad movies, and that, without fail, moves me.

But even in trying to accept and respect this change, I am sad. And I am angry. Selfishly, I have not been ready for my life, for my family make-up, to change the way it has. As if I have a choice. You couldn’t normally say that I’m the kind of person who fears change. Now, for the first time in my life, I empathize with people who dread change, even as I am working so hard to embrace the changes I have no control over and to steer changes that I am capable of steering.

This is what I hope more than anything at all – beneath layers of sadness, anger, confusion, fear, feeling insulted and wounded and unprepared, and even embarrassed – this is what I hope. I hope this woman is a good woman. A really good person. I can literally see what that hope looks like in my head – it is like a light, a glow of orange and pink and red – the colors the sunset turns in the dessert. Have you seen a red/pink/orange iridescent sunset transform the sky of southern New Mexico in the wintertime? That is what the hope for a good woman for my good and deserving dad looks like when I shut my eyes and tell myself the truth about what I believe should be, given the reality we're now living in. My mom would want no less for him.

But I’ve got to find a way to be a more forgiving person, so that I can feel happy about that hope, so I can toss those other layers, thick like sweaty woolen blankets, off of me. So that, if indeed she is a good person, I can learn to love and feel grateful for her.

It’s a difficult change to maneuver, easier to resist.

documenting change: three.

Health, fitness, motherhood - on not wanting to be like my mom.

In a previous entry I wrote about my mother’s health. That it was poor. I wrote that there are ways I’d like to emulate her, but her physical health is not one of them.

Right before my sixteenth birthday, in fact, if I remember, it was either Christmas Eve or Christmas night, my mom went to the emergency room. She hadn’t been feeling well. When the doctors saw her, they advised that she needed to have triple bypass surgery right away. If you had seen her, you would never have imagined that her arteries were so clogged that she could potentially keel over of a massive heart attack (which in fact, is exactly how it happened sixteen years later). She was about 5’4, had a small-frame; she had a belly blamed on having birthed four girls, but she was never grossly overweight. She was actually quite petite overall. Of course, now, if you read about it, you’ll find that when women hold weight in their bellies it’s a sign of heart-unhealthiness, not merely motherhood.

When my mom had the bypass surgery, I remember, in my own hormonal adolescence, feeling angry. Why had my mom had me so late in life (at thirty-six, which today is commonplace)? If she had been as young as the other moms, I wouldn’t have been dealing with a sick mother, the potential to loose her, or with a mother two generations removed from me. These things incensed me, even though at the time I couldn’t articulate the rage. Women hold our mothers to a high standard. We expect from them, all the time almost, so very much. We don’t even realize how demanding of them we are.

Here I am, thirty-two, and when I think about kids – which remain a bigger-than-life-size question mark – the only time they seem somewhat imaginable is when I’m 36, 37, 38. And the closer I get to 36, the scarier that notion becomes. I wonder, did my own failed expectations of my mother prevent me from wanting children as strongly as some deeply long for them?

I’ve always been thin. If you looked at me now, you’d never say I look heavy or unhealthy. You’d notice I’ve gained weight in the last four years or so, but you wouldn’t call it fat. After my mother’s death, and after I quit my job, I felt acutely aware of my weight for the first time. It is almost all in my stomach.

In July, I began going to the YMCA. I made myself go every day for a good three weeks, just so that I would not feel so completely alien inside of a gym. First I just got comfortable walking on the elliptical machine. I didn’t want to do anything that required me to use the locker room. I walked in, went to the elliptical, bottle of water in hand, and I-pod turned on, walked for a half hour, and left. Later, slightly less uncomfortable surrounded by who I perceived to be workout fanatics, I started using the weight machines. Finally, in September, just after Labor Day, I took another big (baby) step – I stepped foot in a class and kept going. As of three weeks ago, the fantasy of training for a triathlon vivid in my head, I began working with a trainer.

I’m a fairly confident person, but this is one area of my life that throws me back into youthful shyness and a feeling that I’m not good enough, that I can’t succeed. When we’re doing various exercises, I hear these words come out of my mouth: I can’t do that. Later, these words and the fact that I spoke them, infuriate me.

It’s nerve-wracking to allow a stranger to see a log of every morsel you’ve eaten over three days, to allow a stranger to measure the diameter of your waist, arms, thighs. In fact, it verges on humiliating. But I did. I find myself in a constant state of soreness. Have I really NOT been using all these muscles all this time?

The other day, I asked what was for me a dreaded questions, “Just how out of shape am I compared to other clients you’ve worked with?” The answer. “You’re in the twentieth percentile. Ninetieth percentile being the best fitness.” And whose face flashed into my head? My mother’s. If you look at me, in fact, the trainer actually said so, you’d never ever know I am so unfit. If you had looked at my mother, age fifty-two, you would never ever have imagined what was happening in her body. Even later, recovered from the surgery, at age sixty, there is no way in hell you could have looked at my mother and seen a massive stroke in her near future. And when it happened, I felt quietly angry at her once again.

I can’t fight my genes. There’s heart disease, there’s diabetes. There's some unspoken depression too. But I can certainly work toward prevention. I think about this consciously when I think of these hypothetical maybe-babies, when I think about being a partner to my husband, when I think about me and all the things I want to experience in life, in my tomorrows.

So, I go to work with this trainer, full of UN-confidence that I’m unfamiliar with at this stage in life. And I think something that no mother wants a daughter to think: I will not be like my mother. I will not be like my mother. Friday, as I was leaving, I said, “Do you think I’ll be ready to train for the triathlon in January?” And he said, “Absolutely. I’ve already got your routine planned out,” (which was certainly an exaggeration). But I left feeling better.

My birthday is in January. I’m going to be more fit at thirty-three than I’ve ever been in my life. That is my goal (part therapy, part vanity). And if ever I do have children, they’re not going to have an opportunity to wonder why I didn’t take better care of myself. To be angry that I waited to have them only to blow off my own health - to not make them enough of a priority to be around for as long as they needed me. (That's one of those counterintuitive things, isn't it - that if you invest in yourself, your health and well-being, you're doing something amazing for your kids. That sometimes just showering them with every ounce of you - your time, nurturing, etc. is only a short-term way of loving them.) It’s something I still get angry about - rational or not, and I don’t want to pass it on.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

gratitude

Among the things I love and feel grateful for, here are three: My husband c. My friend e. My dogs.

The day after I learned of marcie’s death, I had a strange moment. A little conversation in my head. It only lasted about a minute tops – probably less, but in those seconds, I felt like marcie was with me, right in my head talking to me. I felt her. I heard my voice in my head, as natural as it sounds in conversation. My voice said these words: “Okay, marcie. You’re right. I give you credit.” She and I could’ve easily been eating dinner together, maybe chatting on the phone. But it was just in my head. And then I heard her, sort of laughing and chastising at once. She said this: “See, I’ve been trying to tell you that forever.” And then that feeling of marcie in me, that feeling like we were together really talking fleeted out of me.

I stopped to think, what was that about? And I realized it was this. I know my husband because of marcie. And in those seconds, she was forcing me to recognize and acknowledge this fact.

The first time I ever saw him, ever knew who he was, beyond a name I’d heard (a nickname – chi ali), I was twenty or twenty-one. My boyfriend was living in another state and we were in the throws of constant ridiculous long-distance arguing. marcie had taken me under her wing. One night we went to a party, and there he was at the center of a group of people – they were clearly captured by what he was saying. Everyone was laughing. And I wondered, WHO is THAT guy who is the life of this party? I watched him that night, looking, to a girl who was too often melancholy, like he was the most fun in the world. It turned out that he was one of the party hosts. People said, “Chi Ali? You don’t know him?” And I thought, “No, but I’d like to.” People told me, pointing to the building that was the backdrop of this outdoor party, “He lives here, in that garage apartment.”

Maybe at that party, maybe at another of the many gatherings that took place there, I wandered to the side of his apartment and found what was a kind of dada garden that the owner had clearly been styling – There were chairs surrounded by Kudzu walls, if I recall, a toilet with an ivy growing out of it? A kudzu courtyard. At one of these parties, I needed to use the restroom, and went to the apartment of Chi Ali. In it, waiting for someone to come out, I remember seeing his signature on a painting that I noticed and liked, beside the painting, an idiosyncratic collection of objects lining a shelf constructed with wood and string. That was it. I was infatuated with this person who was here and not out of town like my boyfriend. This gardener and painter and collector and organizer of minutia.

I recall also, thanks to e., that after that very first party, the first time I noticed him, I went back to marcie and e.’s apartment where I drunkenly and loudly proclaimed, “C. is SO cute. I have a CRUSH on him.” And I remember e. laughing and marcie laughing, but also looking caught off guard. She probably reminded me, “You have a boyfriend,” before she let herself laugh.

After remembering this all, I thought, consciously this time, I would never have been at that party if marcie hadn’t dragged me there. I was a pretty shy girl, intimidated by big crowds of people. And in my melancholy, I was consumed only with the long-distance boyfriend. And then I knew what that fleeting moment with marcie in my head had been, recognition that I encountered c. because of her – credit I’d never before given her.

It left me thinking about many things, the fact that I know, love and am close to e. only because of marcie. I had locked myself out of my apartment and couldn’t get a hold of my landlord, and I called car-less marcie. She said, “I’ll get my roommate to bring me over. We’ll come get you.” Then I heard in the background, “E! I need you to take me over to herpreet’s!” Bossy marcie. And I thought, “Who is this e. chick? They arrived. Marcie, bringing with her a friend who stayed in my life, a friend I love, love, love. A friend marcie herself had grown up with, a sister-friend.

And the dogs. The only pet I ever had growing up was a bird (there were some fish that died, but I had no attachments.). Later I never wanted a cat, a dog, let alone a fish. When we were in college, marcie’s little Chihuahua, Willamina took an astounding liking to me - though I ignored her, never wanted her licking me or in my lap. (Mina much preferred Marcie’s male friends, and she turned her nose up to most of marcie's girlfriends. It was well known what a little bitch she was.) I suppose because I didn't give her attention, she wanted it from me so badly. I used to shove her off when she tried to cuddle up with me on the couch.

One day Marcie, in irritation with my continued rejection of her dog, chastised, "Mina hears your car when it turns the corner of the street, and she sits in the window and waits for you to get here!" Of course, I could not continue to resist a creature so devoted. It was the first time I realized how smart dogs are, how loyal, and that I was capable of perhaps loving an animal not human.

Now I have two dogs of my very own. It always pleased Marcie how I had succumbed to love dogs and how Mina had been the cause. She never failed to tease me about it. “I can’t believe YOU have dogs,” she would laugh. It literally seemed to tickle her.

These are the ways marcie impacted my life. She introduced me to three of my life-loves. c., e. and dogs. I’d like to see her so I could give her credit, say, “Look how you made a difference in my life, how you helped form it.” But I suspect she knows. Finally, now I know. I don’t need to write more about marcie. Everytime I think of her, I’m going to make sure I remember to say, “Thank you.” I’ll keep loving on her, and I’ll have faith that she senses my gratitude.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

a life, on paper


I think I only have a few more things to share about my friend marcie. Just two more entries dedicated to her. After that, she's someone I'll carry in my memory and heart, and she's someone I'll remember and celebrate with others who loved her.

For the past couple of weeks, a group of marcie's friends have been, with the blessing of her husband, working on an obituary for her. We wanted to run it in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, places she lived for some time. It ran today in Baton Rouge.

I looked at obituaries before trying to get some words on paper. I was struck by how many obituaries do not pay tribute to a person's life. They seem instead, to be marked by grief over the loss of a person. There's space and need for grief, but shouldn't an obituary - words on paper - celebrate and, as best as possible, capture who a person was - what a person's life was? I guess an obituary can't necessarily evoke every aspect of a human being, especially a person complex and dynamic. But it ought to at least try.

Here is what we wrote for and about marcie.

Clara Marciela Smith Marks
August 19, 1975 - September 29, 2007

Known to her loved ones as "Marcie," Clara Marciela Smith Marks was the beloved wife of Jeremy, devoted mother of Ezra and loyal friend to many. She was the youngest daughter of Melba and youngest stepdaughter of James Hollingsworth, all of whom survive her.

An artist all her life, she worked in the mediums of photography, jewelry and painting. Living in Cleveland, she coordinated and oversaw a children's art program and had begun graduate studies in the craft of filmmaking. Marcie's Tex-Mex roots and South Louisiana sensibilities echoed in her work and personality.

Passionate, colorful and nurturing, she was a self-possessed woman who loved fiercely and unconditionally. Marcie's smile lit up a room. Her laugh was infectious. Her day-to-day presence, a kind of feline force, was matchless. Her sharp wit, immeasurable sense of fun, artistry and protective nature, at every age, drew in and commanded people.

She was not a woman to succumb to challenges or adversity. She demonstrated her strength in the way she lived, from age 23, with the heartbreaking loss of her sister, Marisa Smith.

Her nurturing qualities manifested more meaningfully when she bore Ezra, who, from infancy, was her spitting image. At every stage, she felt proud, delighted and amazed by him. She expressed this awe when she looked at him and when she spoke of him.

Marcie was equally grateful for Jeremy. When she told of first meeting him at a French Quarter pub where she bartended, you could see in her expression what resembled a schoolgirl crush. It was a story she enjoyed retelling – how he pursued her though at first she tried to write him off. In the telling, her voice revealed that she was charmed both by him and by her own capacity to love this man.

A memorial service was held on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007, at The Unitarian Church in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Arrangements were made by Tabone-Komorowski Funeral Home, (440) 248-3320. A memorial service will be held in Baton Rouge in December. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the Ezra Marks Educational Fund, Account 2736805900, Chase Bank, 5400 Mayfield Road, Lyndhurst, OH 44124.

Mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and artist. Blue-eyed, blonde-headed, robust and feisty energy. Family and friends are grateful to have been marked by Marcie.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

grief

So. I feel like I’ve been neglecting my treerockcloud page.

Truthfully, I am still overwhelmed by a lot of emotion over marcie. She died exactly one year, one month and two days after my mom died. I’m sure somewhere in my psyche, my emotions over marcie are compounded by that. One day I had the instinct to email all of my friends and tell them that if they ever committed suicide I would kill them. But it didn’t make much sense.

I remembered something last night. We actually did cross paths in high school. It was right before we were graduating. We had to do a practice run-through for the graduation ceremony in which we lined up alphabetically outside the school, marched into the auditorium like a herd of sheep, then onto the stage where we were seated. I was standing between this guy p.s., who was a friend. I was glad we were next to each other because he was incredibly funny. On the other side of me was marcie. Standing in line during rehearsal, I asked if either of them new the school alma mater (the entire senior class was instructed to learn it for the big day). None of us new it, and we agreed we’d try to learn it. Of course, we did not learn it (other things are more prevalent on your mind when you're graduating high school).

We three sat in the 2nd to last row on the stage. I remember being so happy to be in between these two people. The ceremony was long, and no one wanted to end up next to a dud for two hours. We cut up, invented words to the alma mater while it was being recited, and generally, had a pretty good time. I remember thinking, “god, she is funny. I wish I’d known her better all these years.” I was not, as I had been in 7th grade, afraid of her. This memory flashed back to me last night, and I thought, how could I have forgotten that? It made me irrationally angry at myself.

I’ve been working to get my head screwed on straight. Last night I talked to e. for a good two hours, and it was the best time I’ve had talking to a friend in a long time. Marcie dying, which at moments feels completely unreal, has had the affect on me of wanting to make sure I have every important conversation with every friend I have. There were times marcie and I were really angry at each other. I had thought, recently, that we were going to get around to talking about some of those things. Resolving things that, in our hearts, we were over, but simply needed closure. I keep combing through my memory, wondering which of my friends do I need to sort some things out with, find closure about our past hurts? How do we have those conversations?

So. That’s part of where my head is at the moment.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

marciela


Over the next few entries, I want to share my friend Marciela – to evoke the essence of her, to convey what she meant in my life, to demonstrate her strength and love as a person.

An image that captures her – one that renders her childlike, fun, spunky and loving. 18/19/20/21/22 years old, pigtails in her blonde hair, riding on a bike with a basket at the front, and in the basket, her Chihuahua, Willamina – the wind blowing back Mina's ears. Mina and Marcie, smiling. I wish I had a photo. (No one had ever heard of Paris Hilton, and lapdogs in your bag was not a phenomenon at the time.)

Three of my favorite things about her -Her laugh that was infectious and child-like in its pureness. It started out somewhere deep in her chest, came out low and would graduate up into her nose to become this high-pitched nasal and throaty giggle. That laugh, matched with amazing blue eyes that made her look as if she had a 200-year-old soul, and maybe she does. The way it felt when Marcie walked through a door - entered a room. She commanded it. You sensed LIFE when she arrived, and depth and fun and sincerity.

Color. I don’t remember marcie without color. She wore grass greens, turquoise blue, poppy orange. She was not a person to cover herself in black. To be blah. Always pulled together. Her make-up just so, a scent she’d selected carefully, jewelry she made. It was important to her to look good. She possessed her body- womanly, full and sexy. She never looked ordinary. She didn’t look like anyone but her. Her taste, her style – drawn out of her by her own keen eye. Not media, celebrity, Gap storefront windows. This remained true through the years.

She was an artist. A photographer, a jewelry maker, a painter. The paintings and jewelry are what I most remember. Recently she’d started grad school, and was learning the craft of filmmaking. Her paintings – bleeding, saturated colors, evocative of heat, spice, passion, blatant honesty. Her, through and through.

Her artistry, her color, these seeped into the way she organized the space she inhabited. Whoever her roommates were, they had to become part of Marcie’s world. It was a lovely and intense and fun world. You felt safe, cradled, in her space. Earthy terracotta and red clay colors on the walls, textiles draped over windows, Frida Kahlo images on the walls and Catholic saint candles. Tex-Mex meets south Louisiana meets an artist. Forever, now, when I see any work by Frida Kahlo, I will be reminded of my friend.

Music always playing as loud as it could go, eminating through concrete walls. In the early days, Sade, Brand New Heavies, Bjork, Bob Marley, Billie Holliday, Stevie Wonder (You’re the only woman/Boogie on Reggae Woman).

How we met - In 7th grade, she sat behind me in English class. She was oblivious to me. When the bell rang at the end of class, I used to rush as fast as I could to my locker. If I wasn’t fast enough, Marcie would get to her locker first (located directly above mine) and slam it open, inevitably knocking her locker door against my head. I was so intimidated by her presence, which even back then was powerful, that I said nothing. Even if she and I had never been friends later in life, I would have remembered her forever because of this. – I feared her. Marcie loved me to tell this story – she would narrow her eyes and pretend she could not remember ever owning a bullying presence. But she did, all her life, and she knew when to make use of it.

How we became friends - We went to high school together and never really crossed paths. Regardless, we were intended to intersect. Our freshman year of college, we began hanging out. What I remember is that it was a mutual love of Madonna that we may have first bonded over. Anyone who loved Madonna was my friend.

Marcie could be counted on to make you realize what an incredibly amazing spring or fall day it was outside, and the next thing you knew, you were skipping class and sitting with her on the parade grounds. She convinced you to recognize, absorb and be part of a beautiful day. I recall making Baskin Robin runs with her. Riding bikes.

Once, sitting in The Bayou, a bar that is no longer, with her and a.t., we decided we were going to pretend we were invisible – not only invisible, but that we could only see and hear each other. (Before arriving, we’d been engrossed in conversation, and we wanted to keep up whatever intense bonding was going on. No disruptions.) We spent the night completely erasing everyone around us as we drank cheap beer, sucked on lollipops and talked. If people we knew approached us, we pretended we could not hear or see them. Lots of strange looks, but we didn’t care at all. We gossiped, people watched. We created a web that was only the three of us. Marcie had a gift for inventing a momentary situation and convincing others to live that moment with her.

Another time, my now husband approached me in The Bayou. Marcie was VERY quick to command, “LEAVE HER ALONE. She has a boyfriend.” Pounce. She shot that down real quick. If Marcie told you to do something, you listened. She was bossy. Bossy. I asked my husband c. who was bossier of the two of us. Without blinking, he said, Marcie. bossy, bossy, bossy.

I also remember how, when that boyfriend of mine and I were going through some rough times, Marcie made sure I didn’t sit alone in my little apartment. She had me coming over to her place, and she kept me fed and with constant company. I remember nights at her place heating up brie and French bread from the grocery store and eating them together. We used to curl up in her big bed -her and Mina and her roommate e. All of us talking, laughing, dishing on boys, being girls. Marcie knew how to comfort her friends. It was not in her not to nurture.

If you saw how she loved Mina, you saw this. A tiny snapshot of Marcie as a mother.

In those days, and really always, Marcie's friends were her family. Last night we gathered at my house, a small collection of her friends. Someone remarked at the people she surrounded herself with - how she needed to be surrounded by a million different facets. She nurtured every one of us in different ways. I guess we all were reflections of this intense and magical and fiercely loyal woman.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

processing loss

I am not her husband and I am not her five year old son and I am not her mother and stepfather who now have to process losing a child to suicide for the second time. And there's a lot of reason not to feel sorry for them, and there are a lot of m.'s friends who might cringe that I include them in this list. And maybe even, watching over, m. herself is cringing. Somehow, I have to include them in the list of grieving people. Even with tremendous, repeated and stunning error, her mom is her mom who never had an instruction manual.

I am, like a lot of people who are crying over her, m.’s friend. And for m. we friends of hers were very much a family. Disjointed and grown apart as many of us are.

In adulthood, m. and I talked infrequently, maybe every six months. We saw each other at least once a year. When my mom died August before last, she sent me a sympathy card. Those sympathy cards coming in the mail, strangely, had seriously comforted me. Maybe in January or February, I called her. It was when I was first able to reach back out to all those friends who had reached out to me.

I had seen her before that in December. My husband and I had a get together at our house, but that Christmas is a haze. Like m.’s, my friendships have been long, and they mean a lot to me. But I had been petrified to see any of my friends that December. I didn’t know if I could talk to them or if I would want to. It turns out, one of my very favorite memories of m. is from that gathering. Someone else had to remind me of it. She declared with no modesty and with great pleasure that she was “the Kevin Bacon of Baton Rouge,” referring to the drinking game that everyone in Hollywood knows Kevin Bacon by 6 degrees of separation.

That January or February when we spoke, it was a two-hour conversation. The only kind you could ever have with m. And most recently, this past August, just before her birthday, my husband and I had been in NY visiting our friend e. (e. and m. grew up together, and for all practical purposes, they were sisters.)

We were at e.’s sister’s house in brooklyn. m. called e. and the phone got passed around. e. talked to m. e.’s sister talked to m. My husband c. talked to m. And I pronounced with great offense, in a very m.-like way (we could be a lot alike at times), “I didn’t get to talk to m!” (m. would have been so utterly thrilled to know my offense, to know I cared that much.) And e. said calmly, “Call her back.” So I did. And then I separated myself from everyone, and I got in a good conversation with her.

We had commented, before e. first answered the phone, m. is going to be so jealous that we’re all here together. m. longed for her friends, constantly. She longed to be around them and for all of them to be around each other as often and more often than possible.

You don’t realize that a person holds a place and presence in your everyday life until you hear they have died, in this case, committed suicide. When I heard it, even though the m. lived a thousand miles away, and even though we spoke and saw one another infrequently, suddenly I sharply felt the void in the place that presence had held itself.

I want to spew a list of memories, of funny things, of reasons she has mattered in my life, ways she impacted me, but it’s not what I can write about in this moment. I’ll get there. She’d be insulted if I didn’t. I can hear her bossing, “You better.”

All I can muster right now is that everytime I see a Frida Kahlo painting, I'll be reminded of m. I had never even realized before that they were connected in my mind.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

loss, loss, loss.

lost a friend. and it is so hard to process. and so sad and infuriating and incomprehensible. on too many levels, incomprehensible and infuriating.

and later I will write about her. I will celebrate her. for now, only this. a woman who embraced the mess and was not afraid to talk about it and be in it and share her mess with you. and it wasn't really a choice. it was who and how she was. and a woman who loved her friends and loved more than anything for all of her friends to be in one place at one time. and a woman who we all worried over and worried and worried. and in the last 5 years, we all thought, finally, this person is going to be okay. is okay. I loved her laugh. to hear her laughter. and she laughed easily and freely. and if she caught you on the phone, you better look out because it was going to be an hour at least, and more likely two. she could exhaust you. but she loved you. to talk to you and to love you and for you to love her.

and how, when we thought, she is finally okay, we all thought so. how now, could it be that she went out in rage and infinite pain and self destruction. and how now, is it, that she didn't call all her millions of friends and force us to talk for two hours until she was in the clear. and what the hell was she trying to say to do this as she did?

incomprehensibly sad and infuriating. and I'm trying to go to sleep without tears, but with the sound of m.'s laughter in my head.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

semblence of a plan(s)


Fredrick Law Olmstead's master plan for Prospect Park in Brooklyn is said to outshine his plan for Central Park in Manhattan. From what I understand, Prospect Park, both the plan and its implementation, met Olmsted's ideals for what a greenspace in the heart of urbanity should be. But Central Park is the better known, the more visited, etc.

Where I used to work, it was an unofficial mantra that a community must have a plan, one that is visionary but one that also contains an implemtation strategy that is prioritized, phased out and viable.

Ever since I quit my job, I've been thinking as my Self, my Person, as nothing less than a disinvested community that needs a vision, a mission, guiding principles, a blueprint for success, etc. It's awfully type A. But the truth is I'm sort of Type A-/B+ with the occasional Type C lapses. (And maybe that I would dissect my personality type is more indicative of anything. Is there a Type Z?).

Well, THIS community has a plan. Sort of. This community has planS. They are definitely visionary. I hope they are viable. The thing I never thought much of when I worked is how many external variables can impact a plan. And how, with a plan, you're better off to have a back up plan for any and every potential variable. But I want this community that is my Self to implement Prospect Park and not Central Park, and further to gain recognition for Prospect Park.

Plan A.
1. Register for the GRE 2. Get five stories submitted to at least 15 journals by October 31. 3. Study for the GRE in November. 4. Take the GRE at end of November or early December. 5. Fill out grad school applications in December. 6. Send applications off in January. 7. Get back to the writing/editing and prepare for spring submissions to journals. 8. Wait to hear from schools. 9. Don’t get my hopes up too high. 10. If I get into school and get offered adequate funding, be elated. 11. Spend the summer months preparing to move, consider novel ideas to work on in school, get the house rented out for the next 2 years.

Plan B.
Numbers 1 – 9 above. 10. If I don’t get into school or get in without adequate funding offers, don’t be disappointed. 11. Spend the summer months preparing to move and getting the house on the market to sell. 12. Make plans for a 6-month trip around the world. 13. Figure out where we’ll land when we return. 14. When we do return, reapply to schools and get back to the writing routines.

Plan C.
1. Be flexible with plans A and B. Be willing to remove steps, add steps, shift timelines. 2. Keep writing/editing/revising throughout any plans so that at the end of one year I’ll have a short story collection.

Plan D.
1. Expect all plans to go awry. 2. Be positive in the face of obstacles. 3. Remain creative and industrious and put these qualities into action.

Schools I am applying to: UT Austin, UC Irvine, U of WA/Seattle, U of Iowa, Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, NYU, U of MD, Johns Hopkins, UVA

Places I hope to travel: the entire pacific coast of the US (in a bright red convertable), Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Bali, Norway, Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Puerto Rico
***
I guess what I've listed are less plans than they are implementation strategies for a plan. So what is the visionary plan of my life, my Self? Here is part of it. To be a writer, a prolific and earning writer. To, with my husband, travel the world. To live life with goals and also with love and acceptance of the unexpected. To be able to improvise without the need to improvise somehow throwing me into despair and dread.

Last night I saw a piece of video art. It used text by Virginia Woolf. It said something like, "A woman has no country. The whole world is a woman's country." It was more a commentary on politics and the way political leaders wage war in the name of protecting what they/we have. It was saying that women, at once own nothing, but also live in, and so own, the whole world, not some particular latitudinal and longitudinal point on a map constructed of huMAN-drawn boundaries. This was my interpretation.

What would that have to do with me thinking of my Self as a community and trying to draft a plan and an implementation strategy for catapulting that Self toward a certain vision? Possibly not much, but the phrase returned to me as I was writing. I guess I am trying to place my Self in the world somewhere between the way Olmsted saw it and the way Woolf understood it. Somewhere between forming and executing plans for an exact place and time and living at ease as a citizen in the larger world and in a larger spectrum of time. Or I am just grasping at straws, trying to make sense and relationships out of things that have no connection.

That is essentially what I am always doing as a writer. Making my own metaphors. Besides, it's not in my nature to believe that everything is not ultimately connected.

A few disjointed thoughts about place, plans, vision, Self. Disjointed thoughts about connections between things. -Making metaphors and irony.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

a life built


Right now I am sitting in my backyard. It is one of my favorite places to be. In the morning I eat my breakfast out here and I keep my daily journal out here. I’ve been working on blog entries here too. Occasionally, I will work on my short stories from the comfort of this yard.

I can hear a woodpecker pecking away at the telephone pole on the corner of the street. My dogs are out – one lounging, the other, a huntress fixated on a pine tree, waiting for a squirrel to come running down the trunk.

I like my backyard because it is a handmade space, of mine and my husband’s imaginings and dialog, but largely of my husband’s sweat and talent. The wooden fence, he built. There is a shed/workshop he also conceived of and built. There is a small potting shed. Again, his labor. We have three old chairs circa 1950 (that’s my guess) that we got sandblasted and then C. painted them fire engine red. The screen door to the house has a matching red handle that C. (who once did metal fabrication work) also crafted. And the little rusty tabletop that the chairs are set around is a piece of circular steel to which he welded 3 legs. Even the thing that holds our John-Deere-green garden hose – an old tire rim – is something C. found on the side of the road, and before mounting it to the fence, he painted it the same crisp yellow our maple leaves turn.

Here when we bought the place, there is a maple tree whose canopy, in a couple of months, will turn the most vibrant shade of yellow. Overnight, its leaves will make a golden carpet on the ground. It has grown so much in six years.

There’s more of C. here – a twisted columnar sculpture that sits on the concrete slab he poured before building the shed. It’s one of my favorites of his sculptures. But I guess I like them all. The attic vent at the tip-top of our house is made of metal grate. Set in the foreground, there is steel cut out to look like a rusty silhouette of blades of grass and behind the grass, growing out of it, cast metal in the shape of a tree trunk.

Finally, here in this backyard is the beginning of my own meager attempts to garden. An effort started on a whim in May. I have a vision for this backyard. My husband and I both do. It’s comforting, little by little, to see the vision come to fruition.

Sometimes if the weather is cool, we will make a bonfire here and drink wine. And when it is a gorgeous springtime Sunday, we’ll drink coffee and eat brunch and read the newspaper.

Last night we had a few friends over for drinks. A mix-match of friends, which is just what I felt like – mixing and matching, instead of calling the people I knew would “fit” together. Isn’t the unknown more refreshing and full of pleasant surprises? We sat on top of the concrete slab in the red chairs around the little metal table in front of the workshop. The dogs roamed about, one tactlessly sniffing people’s crotches (like the charming beast she is) and stealing pita bread from the table. Occasionally we watched them in a growling duel – letting one other know, “I’m in charge here,” “No, I’M in charge here.”

Sometimes, me and C., in our human way, growl at each other, demonstrate to one another, “I am in charge here,” “No, I am in charge.” Even so, we are fairly equal counterparts. Strong headed, creative, at once social and reclusive, forces to be reckoned with. Forces reckoning with each other, even as we envision and build the vision of what our lives are and are to be.

Now the dogs have run off to the pedestrian gate. I forgot to mention it – C. made it entirely of metal scraps, leftovers from other jobs. It is full of blade shaped leaves and abstract flowers. It is the gate a person walks through to enter this handmade backyard, part of the collective vision of two people. The distinct space we make and inhabit.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

o'connor, o'henry and me - mark the date.

Consider yourselves 100% fairly warned NOW. This entry is SEEPING with positivity and what borders on (or is) obnoxious self-praise.

Breakthrough! Breakthrough! Breakthrough! I have been trudging through revisions to my story. Trudging, dreading, trudging. Today, I had the most difficult time being disciplined. Finally, at 4:00pm, after two hours of procrastinating, dawdling, flipping through websites, looking at my story on the screen, etc. I just said to myself, “WRITE. Now.” And I did. And at about 7:30pm I seriously had a flash of brilliance. Seriously. Seriously. Seriously!!! (I am internally peeing my pants and jumping up and down right now - like a boston terrior; like a five-year-old high on halloween candy. And maybe when I get up to fix some dinner, I will literally do a little jump. Or two!)

(Heed the prior warning.) It was ALMOST as if Flannery O’Connor herself conspired with O’Henry in heaven, and they HANDED down to me the MOST AMAZING ending to a story with a most intense central conflict that developed between the hours of 4pm and 7:25pm. An ending that will read as a moment at once jolting, stunning, tragically comedic, heartbreaking and infuriating!! All of that! O’Connor and O’Henry themselves. I swear. I SWEAR IT.

This story, that my writer friend had nearly apologized for having to deliver the news to me that it needed structure and a core conflict, has it, tenfold. With an incredible unsuspected ending to boot. This story will get published. I KNOW it. I KNOW it. No matter how many rejections it first encounters. This is New Yorker worthy. For Real. Roll your eyes in disgust if you must. I would do the same damn thing.

Yay, Yay, Yay. A very hungry writer now signing off to go make dinner. Very hungry and very satisfied. The best kind of feeling possible.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

documenting change: two.

My dad, the globe trotting senior citizen, didn’t make it in Ghana. I don’t know the details, but he must have been completely lonely and like a fish out of water and maybe stunned by suddenly living as a guest in the home of strangers. Plus, he found out he was going to be teaching a class by himself, when initially, he’d been told he would act as an aide to another teacher. It was something he didn't feel confident he could do. He also felt overwhelmed by the “primitiveness” of the area. And there’s more that I am sure he hasn’t articulated.

Now he has left Ghana and, after a one-night stay and day of sightseeing in Dubai, has landed in India, where he’ll visit with relatives for the next few months before flying home to the US.

I was disappointed initially. But what right is it of mine to be disappointed? It’s not as if he didn’t try something new and unabashed, something to jolt himself out of a fixed state of loneliness and self-perceived purposelessness.

Now, him sitting in India, I am happy he can visit his sister and brother and other relatives. Glad to know he’ll be surrounded by people he has long-known.

And I am equally anxious and terrified that he will come home in December only to pounce upon us another great shock of some sort – he’s engaged, he’s selling his house, he’s moving to another state. Who can even predict what the news may be? But again, what right is it of mine to be anything except supportive of my dad’s decisions? Of whatever he needs to do to live out the rest of his years happy and content and feeling full?

documenting change: one.

I am trying to forget that earlier today I ate something that could probably clog up fifteen people’s arteries. A cream, butter, sugar, animal-fat, cholesterol laden brunch served in a restaurant where the portions were triple the size of one serving. Thankfully, I used my better judgment and did not ingest the entire brioche filled with pastry-cream and topped with blueberries, strawberries, and whipped cream. Nor did I finish off my husband’s stacked grit and crab cake drenched in andouille cream sauce. I still feel enormously full and sick.

I am trying to remind myself that I’ll be at the YMCA tomorrow. And of my fantasy to lose fifteen pounds and gain muscle tone by January. Because when that happens, I have a better fantasy, which is to train for a triathlon. In the past few years, three of my friends have trained for and ran marathons. And now, yet another friend is training to run one. Seems like all of them but one began training after floundering through some major life-changing event. I’m not much on running, but I can understand how climbing toward this immense physical exertion and then completing it could catapult one into a state of change – could land you in a place of mental health (or at least mental readiness) to forge ahead after having just emerged from a shaky transitional state, one entered into after some major life change.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking on the elliptical machine at the Y, and I happened to glance up. I noticed in the mirror that I was full-on jogging. And I wasn’t panting uncontrollably. That was a pretty good feeling considering that my electronically generated fitness report from the earlier week had said that the majority of the time I have been spending on the elliptical, I’ve been in “strolling” mode. It sure didn’t feel like strolling while I was sweating and gasping for air.

I suppose, during these days of change, I am for the first time concerned about what’s going on inside of me - physically. I don’t want, as my mother did, to be diagnosed with diabetes in my late thirties. And I don’t want, like mom did, to undergo triple bypass surgery at age 52. And of course, like mom was, I don’t want to be blindsided by a massive stroke when 60 comes my way. There are too many other ways in which I would much prefer to emulate my mother.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

haggard-the-horrible



Okay. I've been trying to get my morning started since 7 a.m. It's 10 a.m. now. Sluggish. This is the perpetual state of my mornings. Even when I was working in an office. Writers I've been meeting want to know what time I begin writing. I say, "In the afternoon, usually around 2 p.m." They look at me, googly-eyed, because, clearly, they expected me to say, "Oh, 6 a.m., early."

Not the case. I don't care if every damn writer in the world wakes up at the crack of dawn to write, because that's when they're in a metaphysical state of creativity or whatever. Me. I am in a metaphysical state of lethargic bitchiness. 2 p.m. That is when I am awake and functional enough to write a descriptive sentence and some dialog.

After listening to NPR for one solid hour this morning, I finally dragged my ass out of bed at 8 a.m., dressed, leashed the dogs, grabbed my mace, and in a state of agitation, I walked the dogs, thinking, "You were supposed to get out of bed at SEVEN! Not EIGHT."

I thought today, since it is not a YMCA day, that I would try and get to my blog and to the daily journal I keep earlier than normal. We'll see how it works out. Speaking of they Y, I started taking a class last week. Today, I am sore in all the places I hope will one day be glorious. I seem to want things to be less work than they are. That is the lesson I learned yesterday.

Yesterday was a crappy day. I fell way off of the high I'd been on on Sunday. So, just so everyone knows, including me, good things do not always happen. They do not. In June, I had sent a story off to a writer I know. She is an editor for a literary journal, a writer herself, and most important to me, she was a good friend to my old writing mentor. I asked if she could give me feedback. I purposely did not touch the story after I sent it to her. I wanted to be distanced from it so that when her comments came, I could swallow them and move on to revising. Mind you, it's the first thing I've written in eight years.

Yesterday, her comments came. I read them right after returning from the Y. Basically, she said I'd broken every cardinal rule of storytelling and that I needed to restructure the story completely, that is to say, add structure to a story that lacks it altogether. She also gave me a lot of other valid criticism that was not, "I love this story."

After I read her comments, I thought, "How can this story not be wonderful?" Then I coped the only way I could. I laid my sweaty, stinky body in bed for a half hour.

After my nap, I jumped into the shower and gave myself a pep talk. Something like this: You now have a steady job. You now have a steady schedule, including knowing when you write and being able to do it for a four to six hour stretch. You now have contacts with a whole host of other writers. You have written three and a half new stories this summer. You have laid a solid foundation. Now it is time to work. Writing is work. Now you take those new stories and WORK them from crappy first drafts into finished stories. That's what your next step is. It is time to work.

Then I checked my email again and there was a message from the Country Roads editor saying that the piece I'd spent all day Sunday revising was still "not hitting the Country Roads tone." So I said to myself, "This is your work. It's not just writing, it's revising and editing." I spent the whole afternoon revising. I finished working at 6:45 p.m. Take that, early-bird writers. I sent it off, and I thought, "Thank god he asked me to revise. That was terrible."

Today, I'm going to begin revising the first short story I've written in eight years. But first, I'm going to write in my daily journal and do some laundry.

Now it's 11:00 a.m. My mind is less haggard, metaphysically speaking.

Friday, September 7, 2007

blame it on nancy grace

Today I turned in my first two freelance articles. Hooray! One piece they liked and the other needs to be revised. I will live. The articles are a little fluffy. I have devoured and enjoyed plenty of Twinkies and marshmallows and other fluff in my life; I'm sure there is more to come. I'm okay with that.

I am at a coffee shop listening to two sixty-something men have a midday chat. I can't get over the things they are discussing and the rapid speed with which conversation shifts: An infomercial. A friend named Li-O-nel who they listen to on a call-in show on the radio. And now, "This ain't got nothing to do with race, this got to do with dogs." They are referring to a recent pit bull controversy in Baton Rouge. To outlaw, or not to outlaw? And now, "This country is run by a whole lotta conservatives, and for them, property is property. That's how it is." Now, "Three, four, five years ago I heard somethin' about this man who had a stock or a bond or something that was Dutch. 300-year-old bond. Those Dutch were traders."

The friend concurs, "Oh yeah, those Dutch were big traders." The conversation moves on to the French and how they take off every August. "Just like Bush. That man takes off every August, and now all them son-a-bitches are taking off every August."

I guess when you are a sixty-something man hanging out on the patio of a coffee shop with your friend, these are the things worth discussing at rapid fire.

"The woman I don't like on CNN is that woman Nancy Grace." Agreed. I KNEW I liked this man.

The other man is cracking up about someone who does an impersonation of her, "the bubble hair and all."

"And see, they wonder about why people have a lack of attention span and what's wiping it all out." Jumping again, "You know what, I'd like to tell her [Nancy Grace]? That everyone who gets accused of something is not guilty." Amen, brother.

One of them says, about Gary Sinise, "He looks like a frickin' alien if you look at him."

And finally, one endearingly refers to a check-out woman at Calandro's, a local grocery, as, "My little girlfriend at Calandro's." If you saw the women who work at Calandro's, that statement would not sit well with you.

The men are now discussing "the CSI effect." "You know there's gotta be, with all those guys sittin' on death row, a whole shitload of 'em who's innocent."

"Yeah, but it must pretty much even out."

The other spills his coffee, and comments, "'I was just thinkin', I don't very much like this coffee.'" I think, good attitude. Great attitude.

I'm about to leave, and it's taking every ounce not to say hello on my way out. I am turning into my dad. Wednesday, I was here at the same place, and a man was reading a book. He kept laughing out loud. LAUGHING, LAUGHING, LAUGHING. As I was leaving, I thought, "Hmm. I should ask him what he's reading. Maybe I can recommend it to book club." And I walked straight to him, turning sharply just as I arrived. Me turning into dad.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

walks on country roads

In the last year, the last few months, my dad has adjusted to these life changes: retiring – not working for the first time in maybe fifty years; selling his house and moving to a new state into a brand new house to be retired in; having to start over meeting people and turning strangers into new friends, becoming a part of a community again; losing his wife of forty-three years - facing, as a widower, his entrance into a new decade of his life.

Sunday morning, he got on a plane to fly to Ghana where he will, in October, celebrate seventy with his host family, his young students, the teacher he will be aiding, the other volunteers of the program and all the brand new adventures that will belong to him alone. I am going to miss my brave dad. I hope for his birthday present, he gets a feeling that is loneliness clearing like clouds parting at the end of a thunderstorm, and also a renewed sense of purpose.

Before he left, my sister and brother-in-law spent two nights with him. My brother-in-law sent me a little documentary video of dad preparing one of his favorite dishes on Saturday afternoon – gobi parathas, whole wheat flat bread stuffed with shredded cauliflower and spices. Ten years ago, I don’t think he knew how to make a paratha nearly as well as he could eat one. But it’s one of the things he learned to do with remarkable ease after my mom's stroke. I’m sure that when she was living, there were many times when my mom corrected him through the process as he tried to perfect them.

Dad told me he packed all of his spices to take to Ghana, and that when he arrives, he’s going to show his host, Big Mama, how to make chicken curry. Dad has become, by his own proclamation, "a real chef!"

My mom had two rolling pins – a light wooden one that was large and smooth and sleek, and a dark wooden one that was smaller, thicker and more rustic looking. On Saturday, while my dad used the large rolling pin to make perfect gobi parathas, my little niece, who is three years old, charming and charmed, used the small one to test her own abilities. Seeing this image in the video reminded me of being a girl myself – sitting on a stool at the counter rolling dough into lumpy shapes with the same small rolling pin, while my mom stood on the other side of the counter rolling out perfect circles with the large pin, all the while, saying, "That’s a good one! You want me to cook it?"

While my niece practiced the skill of paratha-making with my dad in North Carolina, I had a cooking lesson of my own. In Baton Rouge, my mom’s little sister showed me how to cook another of my dad’s favorite foods, and one of my own. We made saag and maki rotis, slow cooked and pureed greens with a warm cornmeal pancake. We also made homemade Indian ice cream flavored with pistachios, almonds and cardamom seeds. Just before we ate, we added butter to the saag, and I watched it melt into little pools in the warm spinach. This is just what my mom used to do. Inside, in some small way, I felt like a young girl.

So, on the weekend following the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death, my dad cooked, and I cooked. We made comfort food. My dad got on a plane to fly to Ghana, to move forward in life, because he has a long one to live. He emailed today. He said he is staying in a primitive area.

Sunday morning I woke from a dream in which my mother was alive, but we all knew she was going to die. We had gone to be with her in her last days. We were in a hotel, and she was lying in bed. She couldn’t speak, but she was alert, watching us all move around her while we packed her belongings and made preparations to say goodbye. I got to hug her. I woke up before I was ready. When I opened my eyes, I sobbed.

Today is Tuesday. Again, I dreamed of my mother. This time, I was in school, and my mother was, in spite of her limitations from the stroke, taking a class with me. We were learning something together. She didn’t show up to the class, and I was fiddling in my seat, wondering, where is my mom? Finally, I went to the teacher and said, "I need to check on my mom." I left the room and began calling my dad, my sisters. No one would answer. I became frantic. Then my oldest sister came into the dream, and my dad. They stood in front of me while my sister cried. And I knew my mom was gone. I woke up. I didn’t sob this morning; I stayed groggy and frustrated and melancholy as I started the day. I recalled how, the weekend prior to her death, I had had panicked with a sudden feeling that something was terribly wrong. I called my sisters over and over, and my parents’ house. No one would answer. It turned out my parents had been traveling together.

I took a novel writing class in the spring of 1998, just before graduating. On our last day of class, my teacher walked out to the quad with me and asked if I had a minute. We sat on a bench under a live oak. She said, "You’re a very good writer." She said, "I wasn’t sure about letting an undergraduate into a novel writing class, but M.C. insisted that I should take you." (M.C. had been my mentor.) She said, "I don’t know if it will be this one. Maybe. But whether it’s this one or not, I think you’ll be published one day if you keep at it." Then she said, "Do you know M.C. is sick?" I did. She said, "You should go see him if you want to say goodbye." And I did.

Today, I saw that teacher. I had emailed to ask if we could speak, if I could get her advice on pursuing writing. At one point she said, "I remember your novel. It was very good. That’s why I encouraged you at the time." I had no idea if she had even remembered encouraging me as a writer. But I was pleased she did. I told her about the freelance writing I’ve started, and she said Country Roads is a good place to start, that they do good feature stories and have some respectable writing. She also asked me if I had considered sending my novel to some agents. That was followed with a question, "Was your mother in a mental institution?" I wondered what I could possibly have written in that novel to give her the impression that my mother had been in a mental institution? I also happen to know that the novel I wrote when I was twenty-four is in no way worthy of publication. I know this. But I thanked her graciously.

So, these have been the last few days. Days spent adrift, in a way. My first two articles are due on Friday. One is about the cooking lesson with my aunt.

One of my mother’s favorite songs was "Country Roads" by John Denver. The day in November when we scattered her ashes into the Atlantic Ocean, when we walked back to the beach house we were staying in, "Country Roads" spontaneously started playing on my brother-in-law’s I-Tunes. He’d had an entirely different playlist open, one that did not contain that song. My sisters and I, we looked around the room at one another.

What am I to make of these pieces of past and future? They fit together on a continuum, somehow. I know they exist on a thread that, though it may not be a straight thread, intersects with other non-linear threads belonging to a million other people. I guess I'd like to solve how they all intersect and where everything is on my own continuum.

At this moment, I am sitting outside listening to the sound of the sky threatening rain. Rumbling, groaning. That’s all that happens in Baton Rouge these days. Just the threat of a good summer thunderstorm, just the sound looming, and the gray looming, but never the slaying sheets of rain, never the real thing. The sky’s own procrastination.

Friday, August 31, 2007

L+C=Crazy Love





I am supposed to do a reading at a wedding. This is the sort of thing I agonize over. Finding THE perfect thing to read that reflects my two friends and also reflects me. And somehow reflects the fall season and reflects this strange subtropical swamp we live in. I guess that is a lot.

I've thought of a poem by a man named Steve Scafidi from his book Sparks from a Nine Pound Hammer. I think he's a very good poet. Raw and masculine and romantic at once. The poem is very sweet. Very sweet is not how I would describe my friends. But the poem is also hopeful. And my friends, like anyone plunging into marriage, hold the very kind of hope that Steve Scafidi so simply captures. I like the poem, but I am not convinced that it fits. I thought that today, I would write about these two friends. Maybe in the end it will help me decipher the "right" reading.

So. About L. + C.:

I have two friends who are crazy and who I love. And they are getting married.

And there is something entirely foolish about getting married in the first place, but I wonder how much crazier it is when the people involved are also crazy? I don't mean certifiable, or bad, or unprepared to marry. Just this: These two friends each possess an equal presence – a presence that is like an igniting spark – one that will set something big ablaze. If anything, they are, in their craziness, brave and extreme. Like all of us crazy people who plunge into the deep end that is marriage.

But that they are brave and extreme is not surprising. C. is a swimmer. It was a swimming scholarship that brought him from Indiana down to the swampy south. He once handcuffed himself to his best friend, and they swam across the Mississippi River in the middle of the night. Do you know anything about the Mississippi? If you do, you know it is a working river that barges and ships actively navigate, and you know it is full of pesticide run-off and petro-chemical waste that enter it beginning at its far away northern starting point. And in Baton Rouge, it is thousands of feet from one side to the other, if not more. But you might also know that the Mississippi is muddy brown because it is one of the most nutrient rich bodies of water in the entire country. And for C. to come all the way down from Indiana to swim, having read at some point I am sure, Tom Sawyer, and NOT to cuff himself to his very best friend (a Huck Finn of sorts) and swim across the river, THAT would be crazy. And as angry as L. was at the time, this quality in him, is exactly the reason L. could fall in love with him to begin with.

And L. – It’s more difficult to capture what “crazy” means when you are describing her. You could try with this: It means her eyebrows are raised to you, and she is grinning, and the grin is saying, “I dare you.” And you will have to wait to see what the dare is. It will unfold while you have a few drinks with her, and then a few more. Maybe it is jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed. Maybe it’s splashing around in the rain one day. L. being crazy could also mean, “DON’T TREAD ON ME. I WILL GET ANGRY," and you will be, rightfully, frightened. It could mean this too – she might come to you in sheer and sad panic because it has suddenly occurred to her that if she lost someone she loves (someone who is perfectly healthy and not expected to be lost at present), she might be too devastated to know how to handle this, and she’ll want to ask you, “How would I be okay?” More than anything, it means, while verbalizing her own neurosis with humor she doesn’t even intend in the moment, that she will tackle anything. Imagine her – 5’4” learning to weld a metal sculpture four times her size. Learning and succeeding. And certainly, it is her potent mixture of daring and neurosis and determination that compel C. to love her.

So what does a person read to two crazy people who are doing something utterly crazy?

Do you give advice? Like this, from a poem called “A Gift by the Sea”: “When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanence, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity -- in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.”

Or do you offer an anecdote of challenges to come? Like this. Three months into my marriage my husband and I had the worst fight I can remember having. Yet, I cannot recall what the fight was over. What I recall is how much it hurt, how ugly we had been as angry and impassioned human beings. And that later, I believed we had been testing the waters and one another through our ugliness, skirting the question, “How unconditional is your love, now that we are linked inextricably?”

Would it be best to seize the romance of this day? To recite, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways?”

Nothing seems quite right.

L. and C., in the midst of their own craziness, are also creators of tactile bliss. Of music. I have heard the way L. sings. Of art. I have seen his prints and the way that C. draws the ocean. Of impromptu dinners and of gardens grown together. I have witnessed stubborn plants finally take root and grow in the soil they dig, in the beds they bicker about wanting to water.

I have already seen them suffer loss, and in that suffering, collapse into and console one another.

And I have often witnessed them in the center of limitless electric fun -- causing and experiencing rapture and adventure.

Really, they’ve already moved together through some of life’s foolishness. They are already equipped with the experiences to navigate the ebbs and flows of what is unpredictable and uncertain Marriage.

Maybe all that can be offered really is the mere hope so simply expressed in the poem by Steve Scafidi.

"Prayer for a Marriage"

When we are old one night and the moon
arcs over the house like an antique
China saucer and the teacup sun

follows somewhere far behind
I hope the stars deepen to a shine
so bright you could read by it

if you liked and the saddnesses
we will have known go away
for awhile--in this hour or two

before sleep--and that we kiss
standing in the kitchen not fighting
gravity so much as embodying

its sweet force, and I hope we kiss
like we do today knowing so much
good is said in this primitive tongue

from the wild first surprising ones
to the lower dizzy ten thousand
infinitely slower ones--and I hope

while we stand here in the kitchen
making tea and kissing, the whistle
of the teapot wakes the neighbors.

Hopes for a lifetime of navigating together all the sparks, whistles, bells, sirens. Those signals that indicate caution, excitement, sadness and joy, and sometimes, like a tea kettle, absolute calm.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

threads

This all began with my mother. My mother who died one year ago, come Monday.

Six months ago I knew it was time to quit my job, a fast paced, demanding, but also rewarding position in the field of urban and rural planning and community development. I knew that it was time to pursue a new endeavor. Writing. Not really a new endeavor, but a prematurely abandoned endeavor. I knew this with indescribable internal clarity.

I have been writing since I was a child. I never knew if I was good. I just knew I loved to write.

In college, some time in 1995 at the end of a short story writing workshop, my instructor asked me, "Do you know that you know how to write? Really well?" It gave me permission to dream something I'd before been too timid to envision.

I graduated. I moved from the dirty and beloved South to New York. I landed a job at a publishing house. I thought I would work for a while, keep writing, end up in graduate school to get an MFA, begin teaching in whatever university would have me, continue to write, and be on my merry way as a writer. Maybe, one day, even a published writer. This is what the future looked like.

Two months later, my mom had a stroke. A massive and debilitating stroke. Six months into my first real job, I found myself quitting so I could move to my parents' home in northern Virginia to help take care of her. I never wanted to write again. It was not an intentional or conscious lack of desire. I stopped writing as naturally as I had begun. (One day as a ten year old, I was exploring a world atlas and came across Africa. I surveyed the continent. I found Sudan. A narrative poem was born about a girl who'd had to leave Sudan in the midst of war and famine. It was written in first person. What did I know of Sudan other than that, according to the atlas, the Nile flowed through it?)

After taking care of my mom, I found myself working in another publishing house, this time a small university press in Louisiana where I'd grown up and gone to college. I began asking myself, If I am never a writer, what else can I do that will be fulfilling? I'd come to the conclusion that working in publishing was not the answer. I decided that the answer was this: Something creative. Something that had to do with understanding people and place. Something that could better the world in which we live. Something project driven.
I applied to graduate school to study landscape architecture. I went through the three-year program. (It took me four.) It was sheer torture. The entire time.

I got a job. A job I loved (thank god, after the way I'd hated grad school). A job that challenged me and stimulated my intellect. I worked for an amazing woman and with other amazing people. I advanced and advanced and advanced quickly over three years. I kept getting 15% raises. This seemed absurd. (I also worked my ass off. Late nights, early mornings, sleepless nights, heels that were too high worn for workdays that lasted too long.)

This is what happened on August15, 2006. I was driving to work one morning, and a phrase came into my head: I might say something dangerous. I mused that it would be a good way to begin a story. Then, three or four blocks away from my office, something started writing itself in my head. A poem.

I might
say something
dangerous.


I don't know when

I began

swallowing

my words.


Or why

I thought

it should be a crime

not

to hide them

in the back of my throat.


It has been

a long time.


You might
hear
about the boys

and the women,

the glistening babies,

or my old mother,

my old mother,

my old sick mother.


The people

and their stories

that I have

stopped

telling.


You might

hear them.


I could

say something

dangerous.

Or true.

Both.


And then what would you do?


I committed the poem to memory, and when I got home that evening, I wrote it down.

I am a woman who keeps many journals. When I die, if someone finds them, they'll see that my personality and my sanity were disjointed. That is to say, I keep several journals over a period of time. I might write in one one day, and the next day, I might make note of something in another journal. Then I might abandon the journals altogether for several months or years, pick one up and write in it, and the following day write in yet another journal. You'd have to map the dates out in a set of five our six journals if you wanted order or chronology as opposed to the ethereal mood I was in when I selected which journal I would write in on which day.

But I have one journal, an object of art, that my husband (then boyfriend) began making 1997. He completed it and gave it to me in 1998. Fresh out of college, I was still writing at the time. He intended the journal for whatever I might write in years to come. The journal, a thick book with six sections separated by woodcuts of insects on rice paper, was so goddamn beautiful to me that I could not bring myself to write a single word in it. In 2001, long after I'd stopped writing, I decided it was time to put it to use. It became the first journal I used as a student of landscape architecture. I didn't entirely fill the pages before switching to a new journal, but it contained nothing except sketches and ideas for plans to be drafted, for spaces to be created.

That night in 2006, as I was about to commit the first new work I'd written since 1998 to paper, I scanned my bookshelf to choose a journal. The one my husband had given me was the one I selected. For the first time, I wrote in it what he had intended it to contain all those years before.

The following week, I pulled out my old short stories. I began rereading them, editing some furiously. One night, sitting in bed, just having completed edits to an old story, I had a thought. I thought, Maybe when my mom dies, I'll pursue writing in a real way. Then I'll have two people pulling for me. 
My first creative writing teacher, the man who'd asked me if I knew I could write, the man who chose to act for a short time as my mentor, had passed away in the spring of 1998, just before I graduated college.

It's not that I expected my mom to die soon. I certainly did not wish that to be the case. It's just that I'd come to accept what the stroke had done to her for all these years. I'd come to accept that she was aging and was unhealthy. And I was, for the first time, acknowledging that she only had a limited time on this earth. (Who wants to believe her parents are mortal?) If you were to ask me on that night, I'd have said, I think my mom's got five or seven years left in her. If you were to have asked me on that night what I hoped for, I'd have said, I want my parents to have a 50th wedding anniversary. That means I need her to be here for another seven years, minimum.

This is what happened on August 27, 2006, twelve days after the first time I'd written something new in eight years and a week after it occurred to me that in the future I might pursue writing, this is what happened. My mother died. My mother died. It makes my throat swell just to write the words, just to see them spelled out, just to hear them in my head. My mother died. I was not ready. I needed seven more years, minimum. I needed those years.

I'd already grieved for her once when I was twenty-four and she had had the stroke, and I lost the woman who I'd known as my mother just as we were beginning to outgrow our angst with one another. And now, at thirty-one, I lost her again and permanently, the woman I'd come to know and love as my second mom, the person she became after the stroke. I felt cheated. I guess I still feel cheated. And like I was too young for this to happen, both times. I try to remind myself that I am not the only human being on earth who has lost a mother. That my three sisters also lost their mom. That women younger than I am have lost mothers and lose them all the time. That some women never get to have mothers, and I had two.

I'm not going to go into the details of how I have grieved, how I continue to grieve. I'll say this. Six months after she died, I knew with certainty I needed to quit my job. I realized I'd taken a short-cut, which turned out -- like many short-cuts -- to be the longer route. When I had decided to figure out what I might do that could fulfill me if I never became a writer, I had skipped something entirely. I had never attempted to pursue writing in the first place.

Once, when I was young, my mother said to me, "Every time you begin something, you quit." It was an innocent remark on her part, but it stuck with me forever. Forever. (The context of the comment - she didn't want to shell out cash for some lesson or class I was begging to take because I'd quit ballet; I'd quit Brownies; I'd quit violin; if I'd started it, I'd quit it -- you name it. And all my starting and stopping was costing her money!) If I were in therapy now, this comment is one of the things I'm certain I would dissect. It's one of the moments I am certain I would discover has handicapped me for years. (It's also the very comment that pushed me through four miserable years as a landscape architecture student. Every time I wanted to quit, I heard her voice, I heard that statement.)

Innocently, I'd forecasted that when she died, I would not only begin writing again, but would pursue it in a real way. I'd practically assigned it to myself as homework. And my mother died just days after I'd dished out the assignment, long before I'd intended it to be due.
Here I am now. I left my job at the end of May. I am a writer. I am not a published writer. But I am a writer. This means I work at it every day. This means I have produced some short stories. This means I agonize over what a character would do or say and whether what I've written is boring or inauthentic. This means I am chronically terrified of revising and editing in spite of my overwhelming awareness that it needs to happen. It means I carry fear, in my heart, that I'll wake up one day handicapped with writers' block.

It means I am just vain enough to believe that what I write is good enough to submit to editors. That I am vain enough to ignore rejections and to keep writing and to keep  submitting. It means I fantasize again that, given a series of circumstances, I'll be on my merry way as a writer. It means I am practical enough to create those circumstances, including having begun freelance writing (because a girl's got to have cash and a resume). And I am mature enough to know that I have to be disciplined and not merely "inspired." This also means I am blogging for the first time in my life. If you had asked me a year ago if I'd start a blog, I might have asked blankly, "A what?" Or I may just have declared, "No way."

But here I am. Spinning out every thread of every spool of the written word. Yes, I want to be published. Doesn't every writer? Mostly, though, I feel a lot like I felt when I was ten years old and staring at a map of Sudan in a world atlas. Like this -- like writing is the best way for me to absorb the world and to then spit out what that world means to me. My most natural way to make sense of the places in which I dwell, the interior and the exterior. It's not sheer torture the way that grad school was. It is sheer joy, and it is also something I feel compelled to do. More than anything, when I say that I am a writer, it means this: I am attempting.

And attempting, somehow, someway, I know, began with my mother. It may very well be the one thing I will not quit. I've decided, so what if I say something dangerous? Moreover, so what if I fail? It would be more dangerous and a deeper failure to say nothing at all. This is clear.