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


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.