C. and I went to Austin together to look at overpriced and poorly built houses and to figure out what areas of town we would live in and what areas of town we would not live in.
Things we argued over:
1. Whether c. gives me a chance to listen to the music I want to listen to when we're driving and vice versa. (after I wanted to listen to some JT song on the radio)
Me: I LIKE that song.
Him: So you like TERRIBLE BAD shit playing on the radio?
Me: Yes. Sometimes.
Me: I let you listen to whatever you want to hear 2/3 of the time even when I'm not in the mood for it or don't like it. And I don't complain. I don't even say a word.
Him: That's not true. I listen to shit you want to hear and I don't want to hear all the time. On the way down here, you changed the music twice after I'd put a certain song back on twice.
After we both got really mad and had to pull over into a parking lot to duke it out, we agreed it was a really stupid thing to fight about.
2. We found two pieces of property that we would consider purchasing and could possibly afford to purchase, and in an area we'd want to live in. Two properties. Of course, c. liked one better by far and I liked the other better by far. Go figure.
Things we did not argue over:
1. We found the one house in Austin that we can afford to buy. Here she is!
Well, not really. Cause that little hobbit's house is like $350,000. Along with every other dilapidated house in the city.
2. We agreed that we will probably rent for a while.
3. We agreed that, never having realized it before, Baton Rouge has a remarkably large stock of amazingly beautiful and built-to-last homes. Even in Baton Rouge's most run down areas, you can spot beautifully crafted homes. Tons of them.
There is a lot of talk in some Austin neighborhoods about preserving the "character" of these hoods. But these Austinites need to face it: A poorly constructed 900 square foot bungalow built in the 40s for blue collar employees may not be the best example of a bungalow. And it may not be quite so functional nowadays. And it may not be worth saving.
4. We want to win the lottery or get rich somehow. Sooner than later.
5. We also agreed that we are still really really excited about moving to Austin. Really happy.
We agreed over more things than we disagreed over.
Things I thought about on the drive home:
1. Maybe it's because some of the songs are about getting royally screwed (and we're probably going to get royally screwed when it comes to property), or maybe it was just the road weariness, or maybe it's because Spoon is an Austin band. I don't know. But when we listened to the album A Series of Sneaks on the last leg of our drive home, it made me feel happy and like I wanted to sob all at once. I could have listened to it over and over in that moment.
2. In Austin, c. and I listened to Yo La Tengo's "You Can Have it All." I remembered how my older sister had taken me to see Yo La Tengo in Hoboken in 1998 and how I'd liked them, but how it was years later before I realized just how much I like them (by years later, I mean last year).
Earlier this year my nieces and nephews were visiting. Two of them were in the car with me and "You Can Have it All" was playing. My nephew said, "Did she just say what I think?" regarding the line, "If you want, want my love. Take it baby. You can have it all" (which is pretty much the entire song). My niece cackled, "Yes." And they both giggled. I sighed to myself.
I thought of the moment with my niece and nephew and I decided: One day they will be grown and they will know how mentally and emotionally exhausting it can be to love someone. And the words: "If you want, want my love, you can have it all," will mean something completely different to them.
SONGS: The entire A Series of Sneaks album, but especially the songs: Advance Cassette, Lafitte Don't Fail me Now and Agony of Lafitte, Spoon; You Can Have it All, Yo La Tengo
Thursday, May 22, 2008
A double-feature - TWO new entries posted on ONE day.
This morning I woke up with Heart in my head singing "Theeeeeeese DREAMS, go on when I close my eeey-eee-eeey-eyes." Why such a punishment?
Last Sunday I got sucked into not one, but two bad Lifetime movies.
This morning I also woke up thinking: I am so bored with my Self.
c. laughing the other day: "I knew you didn't want to be a landscape architect when you decided to go to grad school. [back in 2000]"
me: "But I didn't KNOW I didn't want to be a landscape architect."
c., grinning: "I know, but... Sometimes you're just. So stubborn."
me: "But I was interested in design. And I was interested in urban planning. And I wanted to know more about plants, and I was interested in park design." Definitively, "And I'm still glad I did it." [Even though the experience also verged on mental abuse.]
[And if you read my other post for today, you'll see that I should be glad. But. I am more glad that I'm finally going to get my MFA in fiction, and presumably, write fiction. For a living. -along with whatever freelance scraps I can get.]
The other day we got snoballs at a snoball stand down the street. I sat on my porch swing and gulped it down through the straw. It gave me the greatest pleasure. Things I love about south Louisiana #493,000: Snowball stands. #493,001: Porch swings.
I have a tiny tattoo that I got when I was nineteen. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t get it on the spot I really wanted to have it on – my shoulder blade. But at the time, I was afraid my parents would think I was a heroine addict or whatever other tragically frightening things they could imagine. So I got it where I could keep it hidden. And now I'm glad that it's not a tattoo that everyone can see. It's kind of lame and it's badly executed.
Lately, I’ve wanted a new tattoo – on my shoulder blade. I’ve been thinking of a heron in flight. Or a purple deep iris. Something that reminds me of being tied to water and earth, swamps, and also tied to growing toward the sky.
At the same time, I’d like to remove my old tattoo – what c. calls “monkeys swinging from a chandelier.” It’s just a flower with little vines coming out around its edges. I took the image off of some Indian embroidery work on fabric my mom had sewn into a change purse for me. I’ve still got the change purse. Do I need the old tattoo?
For that matter, do I need the new tattoo? I'm pondering.
I fantasize about having the arms of Penelope Cruz. I'm going to work on it this summer.
Editing the blog. A question for you people out there. How do you feel about blog editing? Should I leave it alone – keep the good the bad and the ugly up for all to see, or should I remove posts that aren’t so good?
The chronological, orderly, sentimental part of me thinks I should leave it alone and let it demonstrate my growth/evolution as a writer and as a human being. And let it be a true journal. The future writer in me thinks I should weed it out like a garden, and keep up only what I’d want a potential editor/agent/publisher to see.
Your thoughts??? I invite them.
SONG: What Goes On, The Beatles
I’m not working for the poet a. anymore. I was offered a job to research and write a chapter of a Cultural Landscape Report on City Park in New Orleans. I’m working on the historical context chapter. The report is due at the end of July, so the timing is perfect – I’ll be able to wrap up the project just before I move.
Truthfully, I’d learned as much as I could learn working with a. Glimpsing her submission process – how she organizes, tracks and keeps herself submitting on a year-round cycle is invaluable to me, and when I begin school, I’m going to also begin my own story submission system based on a.’s. Beyond this, I was becoming more of her girl Friday.
Sadly, I’m not doing any stories for Country Roads. Getting the house ready for sale, taking a job that uses a whole lot more of my mental energy and trying to write for myself along with the day to day chores of living is as much multi-tasking as I can handle. Since leaving my old full time job nearly a year ago, I’ve become honest with myself about my personal capacity to work and stay sane; I’m no longer interested in sinking my general mental and physical well being for the sake of feeling “accomplished.” Besides, I can say in all honesty that, in the course of six months, I did at least two stories for Country Roads that I am really proud of and at least a third that I really like. I’d be willing to use any of these three as clips when submitting in the future.
The new job pays just as well as working for a. did, and I enjoy using my landscape architecture and my writing all at once. Not to mention, I am sponging up a whole mess of knowledge about New Orleans. I am still in love with making my own hours, living by my own personal circadian rhythms…Freelance work is good.
Yesterday on the job, I finished reading New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. It’s by a geographer named Peirce F. Lewis, and I’d read it in grad school – twice, once during first semester and once during my last semester. I guess third time’s a charmer, because I fell in love with the language Lewis uses when he writes of New Orleans.
The book describes New Orleans’ geography and natural systems, and in about eighty pages, it manages to clarify how the city has always existed in a terrible situation in which to locate a city, but has also always been a completely logical, even necessary site on which to locate a city.
Lewis also speaks of how the city’s decline as a great American city (in terms of its economic role, it’s population decline, even its social decline – for New Orleans was not always so racially stratified, etc.), parallels it’s geographical and environmental decline. He doesn’t shy away from the city’s environmental, economic and racial complexities. In fact, I’d say he shines light on the reality that cities are the complex collision of natural environment, manmade manipulations, and varying human/cultural belief systems.
The edition I read was the first, so it ends in the early 1970s. If I recall, Lewis did an updated version sometime in the 90s.
I’ve also begun reading Craig E. Colten’s book An Unnatural Metropolis: Wrestling New Orleans from Nature, and it’s so good that I can’t wait to get working today – which is how work ought to be. In his introduction, Colten writes: “Lewis Mumford has suggested that cities displace nature, and Henry Lawrence has written that cities stand as the antithesis of nature. Activity to transform New Orleans has reflected the move to remove nature. New Orleans has so thoroughly reworked its original setting through forest removal and drainage that one could call it the “unnatural city” – although it never completely escaped nature.”
The two books, one exploring the city up to the 1970s, and the other published after Hurricane Katrina, are a well-matched complimentary pair – Colten certainly references Lewis’s book. He addresses in his preface how Hurricane Katrina punctuated precisely why it is relevant for people to understand the development of cities from a perspective that looks at human, natural and economic interactions, rather than simply from an economic standpoint.
The books are beautiful because anyone can read them (and everyone ought to). The authors do not over burden the reader with intellectual jargon. Rather, both books give New Orleans its due justice. They’re written poetically and matter-of-factly at once– in the same way that when one begins to fall in love with New Orleans, he understands that New Orleans’ eccentricity is as intrinsic, necessary and ordinary to its existence as the blueness of the sky or the greenness of grass.
This multi-cultured and integrated old-world European city layered beneath a post-1950s racially segregated American city built centuries ago atop a swamp and along the natural levee at the mouth of the Mississippi River Delta in turns survives and struggles while the river heaves into the Gulf of Mexico depositing nutrient-rich sediment at its banks. And there people live – people created this city and create within it, even as silty-sediment weighs down upon itself and causes it to continually sink.
I am reminded that I must live in New Orleans someday. Because, really, though the city literally sinks and seeps, I believe unconditionally in its capacity to regenerate. It’s situation remains difficult, but its site exacts that it be inhabited and nourished. History repeats.
SONG: One Hundred Years Ago, Rolling Stones
Monday, May 19, 2008
Today, he is an architect. He puts on collared shirts and vaguely ironed pants and a belt and lace-up leather shoes to go to work. But when I met him and when I married him, he was a yahoo.
First time I saw him was at a party. He lived in a garage apartment. His friend lived in the garage apartment next door. They called the place “the institution.” C. was cute and rough around the edges, maybe a little 1970s-era rock n’roll scruffy. His neighbor was cute and taller and slender, maybe a little east-coast-preppy. C. was loud. His neighbor G. was quiet. They, along with their other friends, knew how to throw a party, heckle a band (“Come on. Play ‘Radar LOVE!’”), and create their own brand of dadaism. C.’s tiny side yard included an old porcelain toilet from which kudzu vines emerged and walled-in the entire space. C.’s neighor G. paper mached a life-size tree-trunk in the middle of his tiny one-room-apartment. C. was loud and rowdy. G. was shy, quiet and also rowdy (given enough liquor, lack of sleep). C. has always managed to choose friends who are remarkably different from himself, but equally creative, quirky and rough around the edges.
C.’s parents own and operate a Goodyear tire store that is known for its absurd locally produced commercials. “I got tires coming outta my EARS,” one ad used to proclaim. The main character in another old ad announced, “I’M MAD!!! About the price of tires!” Later, as a follow up to this ad, another commercial declared WAR on the price of tires. These commercials tend to run on CBS during Letterman. They are the brainchild of C.’s dad – a tall stern-looking depression-era Okie, who over the years transformed from shy and quiet to a boisterous businessman. I believe he exercises his own strong creative impulses through his ad campaigns and his massive summer garden.
There are two of these shops in town now, but at one time I think there were five. Maybe even six. They sprung from an Esso service station his dad owned in his twenties.
When I first began dating C., people would ask if I knew he was the son of the local celebrity tire-commercial-man. In spite of growing up in Baton Rouge, I’d never heard of this tire-man, and I’d somehow overlooked years and years of bizarre advertisements.
The “I’m mad” ad campaign bore a generation of t-shirts that say, none-other than, “I’M MAD!” Eventually, I was lucky enough to secure one.
C. grew up in the country. The very white, very working class, very country country. There was one Filipino (or Vietnamese- I can’t recall) family nearby. He had to wake up at 5:00 a.m. to feed a hog that later would be killed and cooked and eaten. There were several of these hogs over the years.
He attended a predominantly black high school in Baton Rouge (and not in the country) that was known for its jazz band. It was perhaps less known for its obvious racial segregation, or for its historic significance. The school, one of the very first publicly funded African American high schools in the US, was and is in a historically African American neighborhood. In the eighties, alongside its “regular program,” attended by the neighborhood kids, it became home to a small “gifted and talented program,” attended by mostly white kids, a few black and a few Asian kids. In 1994, when C. graduated, there were still two proms. A “regular prom” and a “gifted prom.” A black prom and a white prom.
He had his share of physical fights with kids from a the “regular program.” One kid in particular terrorized him (a kid I’d attended middle school with and remembered as funny and nice. But looking back, I can recognize a glimpse of anger just beneath the surface). Because C. was small, he had no choice but to be fierce in self-defense. I gather that there was a great deal of misplaced anger in all these high school boys, black and white.
From the time he was a kid, C. spent summers working at his parents’ tire store. He once told me that, just as he’d had to know exactly how to fight back in high school, he had no choice but to respect the black guys who worked as mechanics and no choice but to work hard in front of them. Not that they would have, but they could’ve easily beaten his ass. And he was already perceived as the boss’s kid, which demands the task of self-redemption. Most of all, he watched these men work their asses off day in and day out. He observed the way others did not always treat these men with respect. And he could not be among the disrespectful. It must have been tremendously confusing to go off to high school and be harassed and occasionally pounded on by angry neighborhood kids.
It’s difficult trying to describe and analyze, for lack of better term, the experience of “segregated integration.” His interaction with all these mechanics and his student peers, “gifted” and “regular,” impacted him.
Once, confused about some of C.’s favorite musicians, my sister asked if he was “trying to be black,” or “wished he was black.” It was one of the most ignorant remarks I’ve heard her utter. Not purposefully ignorant, but naively ignorant. She may have judged his musical tastes as some sort of rebellious phase or some kind of white-man’s-guilt-self-loathing. I don’t think she necessarily got the implications of her statement. But C.’s musical history, his knowledge and love of hip hop, R&B and jazz, is very much a product of his human experience. The way people brush shoulders and insults and attempts to understand one another past handed down paychecks, age differences, and internal rage.
From his Cajun mom, there is swamp pop, Tommy McClain singing "Silver and Gold," and there is also Motown. Aretha, Aretha, Aretha. He loves her.
C. is a music aficionado. In his youthful absorption of the musical worlds – something maybe akin to a sensation overload to one's taste buds - he loved not only hip hop and jazz, but also reggae and punk. In high school he had a leather jacket with the Fishbone logo hand-painted onto its back. And a Bob Marley poster on his bedroom wall that his parents took down and threw out. But if you look at his 500 albums or any of his CDs or the songs filling up his I-tunes, you’ll find The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Minutemen, Pharcyde, Bob Dylan, contemporary Indie-rock, alt-country, Can, The Books, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson. You’ll find musicians I have never listened to or heard of and to whom you have never listened.
I met him in college when he and his neighbor threw parties at the institution. I saw him, at the center of a group of people, guys and girls. He radiated intense appreciation for life. I didn’t know at the time that he’d almost died in a fall off a mountain. No wonder he seemed so happy to be alive. The people gathered around him seemed enthralled by the humor he projected.
I grew to learn all of the different angles of C. Lover of music. Backpacker. Photographer. Mountain biker. Painter. Sculptor. Printmaker. Skate boarder. Laborer. A guy never afraid to get his fingernails filthy dirty. A collector and an inventor. He had a shelf full of convex glass lenses, doll-house-sized plastic Schlitz cans, glow in the dark Virgin Mary magnets, old blown-glass lab beakers, an old wooden cello neck and fingerboard, a universe of found objects he arranged together and called the “antiquated system.” His very own Joseph Cornell piece displayed on bracket-hung plywood – before he’d ever discovered Cornell’s shadowboxes.
Once, a teacher at his private school told his mother that he was hopeless and she should give up on him. That he wouldn’t be able to learn. He was ten or eleven. This memory still makes C. visibly angry.
He will make you laugh with a wry joke or an uncanny impersonation of yourself or someone else. He might piss you off. He might easily get pissed off. He’s got curly-ish hair. A hearty laugh. He is left-handed. He can be a risk-taker. He has a lot of scars. I used to try to count them and keep track of their origin. But it is a hopeless endeavor. I don’t mind taking risks with him. Because he is also committed to succeeding at his own ventures. I think he reciprocates in this respect. He is most always willing to take risks with me.
Some of the things he thought he wanted to be and studied in college are landscape architecture, print-making, photography, drawing & painting, architecture and sculpture. He became a sculptor- working with mostly metal. He likes to weld, to meld hot metal into structural form. Later, he became an architect. His sketchbooks - even from way back in high school, make it clear that he was drawing lines in the right directions.
He can read about architecture for days and days and days. He’s enjoys fiction, but he mostly reads informative non-fiction books and articles. Which is funny since I write fiction. One of his favorite novels is The Catcher in the Rye. He didn’t read it until he was in college –but he, boy from the South and the country and a tire/auto-repair shop, a back-woods elementary school, and a segregated integrated high school – he related to Holden Caulfield. He can remember feeling like Holden Caulfield when he was growing up.
The first time I went backpacking, it was in Big Bend National Park, and it was with C. and a group of four other friends. The second time, the two of us went to the Grand Tetons, where he’d worked for a summer. I remember arriving at our highest point of elevation, looking out at the treeless mountains before me, and realizing at last, how very small-how absolutely tiny I am compared to the great big universe. I thought, I am just part of the minutia, but all the parts are connected and essential. I felt liberated by this understanding.
C. is the sum of so many parts. Odds and ends that seem unrelated, or like it would not be possible for them to intersect.
His mind works in funny and fascinating ways. He knows how to observe and absorb his surroundings and then toss out abstract objects to reflect back on them. If you can’t make sense of his response to this world, it’s okay. He doesn’t really need you to. It’s more about his own understanding, his own reflecting. Designing a building or a sculpture or a wall relief or arranging objects on a shelf – this is his way of contributing to the amazing minutia we all are and in which we are engulfed.
His fingernails don’t get as dirty as they did when he was a blacksmith after he first graduated college. He doesn’t throw 2 a.m. parties anymore or heckle bands. He hasn’t been in a fistfight in some years. Underneath his vaguely ironed clothes, he’s still a yahoo. Is there such a thing as a yahoo-intellect?
It’s okay to get lost in the details sometimes - they can be astonishing and humorous and extraordinary, or sometimes just plain simple. It’s not his intention to teach me, but this is one lesson that I learn from him all the time.
SONGS: Too Many People, Paul & LInda McCartney; One Hundred Years Ago, Rolling Stones; Dear Boy, Paul & Linda McCartney.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Today, a list. Inspired by the blog of Alex V. Cook.
1. 2008 is supposed to be my year of transformation.
2. Our home is being transformed. Acoustic ceiling tiles are being buried under sheetrock and drywall. Wood paneling is being mudded to give it a drywall finish. Floors are being refinished. Plants are going into the ground outside. Porch floors are being sanded and painted. Sunny yellow walls and grass green walls are being painted pale gray-blues, crisp, clean golden wheats and soft whites.
3. We will be living in a mighty grown up house soon. But not for long.
4. I went saltwater fishing in Cocodrie, Louisiana for mother’s day weekend. This is what my mother-in-law wanted. For me and c. to come down to her fishing camp and fish and spend the night.
5. I’d never really fished. I thought I would be miserable.
6. But I loved the drive down to Cocodrie.
7. I loved being surrounded by shrimp boats preparing for the opening of shrimp season.
8. I loved the one-hour boat ride that brought us closer and closer to the Gulf of Mexico.
9. I loved that I wanted nothing more than to jump into the water and swim. Though I couldn’t because it would have scared the fish away.
10. My life is transforming. I’ll be a student again.
11. I’ll also be a teacher soon, to college freshman and sophomores from small Texas towns. I’ll probably love this.
12. I like young minds.
13. Most importantly, I’ll be a writer.
14. We are leaving Baton Rouge and heading to Austin, TX. I am blissful and sad all at once.
15. Dismantling closets and cupboards is more involved than one would think.
16. Every single object holds a distinct memory or carries with it an emotion.
17. Even old cassette tapes. I had a hard time parting with my husband’s collection of $3-gas-station-cassette tapes. I didn’t even buy them.
18. But yielding my hesitation, he kept them. He put them in a case in my car and said I could listen to them on the drive to Texas and decide which ones to keep and which to toss.
19. I liked this idea. One of my favorite Aretha Franklin songs is on a gas station cassette tape.
20. I am lucky that my 2004 Jetta came equipped with a cassette player.
21. I had packed two boxes of all of my landscape architecture materials – notes I’d taken, papers I’d written, thick articles packed with dense language. Things I’d read and highlighted and contemplated. I had also packed every single journal I filled while in school. Not to mention a whole box dedicated to thesis materials.
22. The next morning, I wondered: Why do I want to keep all that landscape architecture stuff? Does it make me feel smarter? Does it prove to me that I survived the 3 ½ years of mental torture?
23. I unpacked the boxes and threw as much away as I could. I kept all of the journals. The travel journals are especially nice.
But I got the articles/notes down to one binder (from about fifteen). It made me want to cry. It made my stomach ache the way a broken heart aches.
24. I had to remind myself: You are no longer that person. You don’t have to carry your entire past with you; you can keep small reminders without bringing along every last overstuffed suitcase.
25. I also threw away almost every design project I’d done – planting designs for residential and commercial sites, a free bike rental strategy for the city of New Orleans that included an economic development component, and on and on.
26. Later, I finally sorted through the two boxes of materials I’d brought home with me when I quit my job last year. I threw away everything except one tiny pile. I couldn’t figure out how I’d let the two boxes consume space in my office for an entire year.
27. I managed to exhale for a very long time. I am not an urban planner or a rural planner or a community planner anymore. I am not a landscape architect.
28. I am a woman who studied these things and worked in this realm over seven years.
29. Seven years spans infancy, toddler-hood and early childhood. It’s okay to mourn this passing. And it’s okay to remember fondly that I did a really good job when I filled this role.
30. My 23-year-old friend asked me if I feel domestic doing all of this packing and paint-color-picking. I think she thinks that being married and owning a house equals being domestic. Maybe it does.
31. I said I feel like I'm preparing for the most important business venture of my life to this point.
32. I had a boyfriend who said I was domestic. It felt really insulting at the time. I was 20 or 21. I wanted to tell him that being clean and also considerate of others and enjoying the act of cooking a good meal now and then was not domestic so much as it was a sign of a civilized, compassionate and creative human being. But I thought of this too late.
33. Occasionally, after having spent a whole day cleaning the house and celebrating it by cooking a good meal (because it's nice to cook in a clean kitchen), I will joke that I am a domestic goddess.
34. But mostly, I don't feel domestic. I feel like my head is in the clouds and my feet are on the ground, toes occasionally skimming the water. Is there a label for that kind of person?
35. I never again have to conduct a round table discussion or a 300-person community meeting with disenfranchised and frustrated citizens. Dairy and sugar cane farmers. School teachers. Senior citizens. Generations-long families of bricklayers.
36. But when I did, I listened hard, and I sincerely cared about everyone. This can ware a person down, or make a person cynical. Both.
37. Because community members are generally misinformed and often too myopic to grasp the big picture, and equally, the financing aspect of community development projects usually ends up pissing on the very people it ought to assist. Or at least it pisses on the majority of them.
38. I left before cynicism set in.
39. I am an optimist by nature and desire.
40. Transforming into some person new or better or who better fits your inner-essence means releasing who you have been.
41. I wrote a poem the day after mother’s day.
42. I wrote it in twenty minutes though I had not known it was sitting inside of me.
43. I only knew that laying eyes on two dresses nearly socked me in the gut on the night of mother’s day. I got sucker punched.
44. I used to want to start a girl band called Sucker Punched. But I’m not musically talented.
45. It would have been a punk band. I would have played base. Is that domestic?
46. I think the label I want is: Nourishing.
47. I didn’t catch a fish in Cocodrie (so maybe I could have swam), but I almost caught one. A speckled trout. I didn’t know how to reel it in properly. I held the pole over the water for too long when I should have swung it in over the boat right away. Apparently trout have tender mouths and can escape the hook easily. Mine fought its way back into the water.
48. He was a tired fish. He was hyperventilating and not swimming when he got away from me. I secretly hope he lived to swim another day. Days. Months. And on.
48. He was THIS BIG. (Envision two arms being held wide apart.)
49. My fish grows with every telling.
Here is my poem. Remember that I am not a poet and please be forgiving.
Late at night. It was
packing clothes from my closet
into a cardboard moving box
that brought out the ache.
Black chiffon party dress, its price tag
still dangling on a safety-pinned string.
The other, brown and beige silk
worn three times, maybe four.
This dress that made me look skinny and professional
when I felt like neither.
Muddy colors and flattering cuts.
She had died, our mother.
And we shopped.
Loaded our arms with more
clothes than they could carry.
Tried on and on and on.
Dresses, pants, blouses.
All the garments our mother
could have sewn for us.
On this grit-your-teeth-smile-and-be-happy day.
Ding of a cash register may as well be a casino slot machine.
Charging credit cards.
Bags we carried home.
Heavy bags of purchased therapy.
The manufactured memory of
four sisters shopping together
so we could feel happy and full,
instead of empty and robbed.
Yesterday made two mother’s days.
I thought I did not miss her this time.
Pulled these hangers from my closet.
Dresses delicately draped. Drooping.
Remembered shopping with my sisters.
The bliss. Then, the murk of black brown beige.
Like a fist in the stomach. A tender bruise.
Fabric you ball up. Stuff into a garbage bag
and drop at Goodwill
so you can discard that desperate day after her funeral.
SONGS: Won't Be Long, Aretha Franklin and So What, Miles Davis
Thursday, May 8, 2008
health. wealth. wisdom.
When I was in tenth grade, my dad and I – alone for two weeks while my mom was off in Ohio for the birth of my nephew – we thought we’d won the lottery. The big one.
I’d woken up to get ready for school, and I found a cryptic note taped to my bedroom door. “Sleeping after selling horses,” it said.
My dad worked the late shift at various grain elevators along the Mississippi River, so he’d come home around 4 or 5 a.m. and go to sleep just before I was waking.
On this particular morning, having gone to bed believing that at long last he was a wealthy man – he couldn’t quite rest easy. The second he heard me get up, he shuffled out of his bedroom nearly shaking.
“Did you see my note?”
“What did you mean?”
“It’s an Indian proverb. I wrote the English translation.” My dad was whispering, and his eyes looked crazy and alert and as if they were bouncing joyfully.
“What does it mean?”
“Herpreet. What I’m going to tell you, you can’t tell anyone.”
“Okay.” I gave a solemn promise.
“Come here.” He led me out of our hallway and into the kitchen. He pulled out a lottery ticket – his hands shaking. And then, still whispering, he slowly pronounced the words, “We won the lottery.”
I think I froze in place. I’m not the kind of person who screams like a hyena when I’m shocked and happy. I get quiet and contemplative and numb. Later I might break out into laughter. Nervous giggling laughter. “We won the lottery? Are you sure?”
“See it.” Newspaper open in front of him, he extended to me the ticket held in his shaking hand. He began reading the numbers aloud, as if confirming for himself. “Don’t tell anyone,” he reminded me.
“I won’t,” I promised, my own body suddenly shaking in disbelief.
I spent that day at school in the strangest waking-dream-state. I felt as if I’d been dosed with enough Novocain to numb a full-grown horse.
“Okay.” He said. We embraced tightly. We laughed. We stared at each other – our excited brown eyes probably mirroring one another’s in expression. “I’m going to go try to sleep now.”
“Wait. What did that note mean?”
“Oh.” He said the proverb in Punjabi. Then, “sleeping after selling horses. Means someone is resting good after working hard.”
When I got home from school that day, my dad was awake, probably getting ready to leave for work. Embarrassed and disappointed, he had to tell me, “I made a mistake. We didn’t win the lottery.” Psssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. Like a pin stuck a balloon. I deflated. I’d been fantasizing all day about how now I was going to be able to afford to go study English at U of Wisconsin in Madison or UMASS/Amherst.
That weekend, we got on the phone and told my mom and sister in Ohio the whole fiasco. I think at first, he may have asked that we keep the whole thing to ourselves. Eventually, my other two sisters heard the story too. For years and years we have laughed about how, for a day, we’d won the lottery. Bellyaching laughs.
Once you think you’ve actually hit the jackpot, you can never forget what it feels like to be instantaneously rich – even if only for a day.
So on Monday, when I got online to look at the posted triathlon results, I was not at all disappointed to see that in fact, I had not placed 3rd in my age group. Back in January when I’d registered, I’d signed up in the “fat tire” division of the race – for those who would ride on mountain bikes or hybrids. While I was training, I got hold of a road bike and never thought to change my registration for the triathlon.
I should have been counted among women 30-34 in the road bike division. I placed 15th out of 25 in my age group and division, and 104 overall. I am really damn happy with these results. And all day Sunday, I got to believe I’d won the lottery. Sort of.
But it’s as if I really did win the lottery.
On Tuesday, I decided that it would be the right thing to notify the race coordinator and the woman who really placed 3rd. I sent them an email explaining my error in registration. I elaborated that, having panicked in Lake Charles at T-Gator, completing this second triathlon without mishaps had been important to me. I shared that (newly realized) I raced in memory of my mother who passed. So believing I’d placed for a day was a welcome feeling. Finally, I told her:
I wanted J. to know she placed 3rd, b/c she may have had her own reasons for why this would have completely made her day.
Later, I came clean to my classmates:
K., I wanted to say thanks for hand delivering the rocketchix metal to Serrano's. It truly made my day to believe I'd actually placed! Especially after how disappointed I felt after T-Gator. Part of training for a triathlon was in memory of my mom who passed away a year and a half a go. She was a completely feisty and adventurous woman, so she regretted that she'd never learned to swim and ride a bike. During rocketchix, I focused during the swim and the bike by talking to her the entire time. In my head - not out loud. :) And it helped - I didn't even notice the wind during the ride.
I explained my registration issue and said that I’d let the coordinator and the actual winner know. I added:
But. I'm totally keeping the metal on the pink ribbon! ;) Well. Unless she asks for it...
So, I want to digress for a moment. Sometimes you encounter a person to whom you are immediately drawn. There was one girl in my class to whom I was drawn. She had also had a tough time at T-Gator in Lake Charles. She crashed as she was heading out on her bike ride, and when I say she crashed, I mean her entire calf is still healing. She also scratched up her arm and her face. But, bleeding heavily and aching - she completed the race. She is nineteen and a freshman at LSU.
I noticed right away that she is completely stunning and has a dry and quick wit. I also noticed that she seemed fairly unaware of her own beauty, and possibly unaware of the degree of her humor. I noticed that she is mature for her age – she, at nineteen, asked me questions about what I do that I don’t know if I would have been astute enough to consider at her age. Her humor also revealed her intelligence. Finally, compared to the other freshman girl in our class – a nice eighteen year old, but a young eighteen, it was blatantly evident exactly how mature and intelligent H. is.
Beyond this all, or because of it, or just because, I knew I liked the girl. I liked the way she spoke of her hometown. Once, on a bike ride, we passed cows on River Road, and H. began telling me about the place in Tennessee where she grew up. She said she lived in a place where she could look across the street and see baby cows all spring. She said she missed it.
In general, she spoke as if she is present and observant in the moment and her surroundings, but also reflective of the newness she is absorbing. She mentioned once how small a town she came from, how sheltered her life had been. Yet she made the statement matter-of-factly instead of in disappointment or disillusion.
I guess it’s fair to say that, though she is in a totally different time in her life from where I am, I admire her. It was clear to me that we would not actually strike up any kind of friendship outside of class. In class, whereas, some of the people who were closer in age to one another were striking up actual friendships, my interactions with H. and others were appropriately limited to polite small talk.
Return to last Tuesday. A few hours after I sent the email to my triathlon classmates, I received this unexpected response from H:
We were all very excited for you regardless of any mixups in registration. Hey, you still beat 2 (or 3 - I can't remember) of your high school classmates! :)
On a more serious note, I'm really glad you sent this; you cannot imagine how wonderful the timing. Tomorrow will be the one year mark since I lost my brother. He had just turned 20 when he passed away during a glacier climbing accident in New Zealand. Extremely athletic and active, he was in the process of training for triathlons but never got the opportunity to compete in one. This entire experience has been very helpful as every time I complete one, no matter how I do, I feel like I've done something to make him proud.
Long story short, I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your mom, but I think I understand when you talk about talking to her while you rode. I hope this experience has been a good one for you; if I don't see you at T-Gator, enjoy Austin and good luck writing!
And it hit me in so many places. Heart. Head. Stomach. I sat with this email for several hours. I wanted this young girl to know exactly how remarkable she is. Later, I responded.
How strange the ways in which we all connect to one another. My husband was in a hiking accident in Montana when he was eighteen. He fell off of a mountain and broke his back and wouldn't have made it except that, completely disoriented, he managed to find his way to a hiking path. A couple of dogs sensed something was wrong and ran off from their owners - leading them to C. A husband and wife found him, and the husband happened to be a neuro-surgeon. He was incredibly lucky.
I'm sorry about your brother. I had already quietly observed that you are so very mature and intelligent at your age (compared to what I was like), and also that you are a stunning beauty [If you weren't sure of this, you should be.] Freshman year is a feat in and of itself, so I'm amazed at how remarkable you are to be in the honors college, to have made time for triathlons, to be living away from home for the first time, and to be grieving. Be proud of handling it all with grace. Your brother is most certainly proud.
I'm sorry you have to deal with finals during this one year mark. At the one year anniversary of my mom's death, I was afraid I would be in shambles. But my sister took it upon herself, first thing in the morning, to email my dad and my other sisters. She said in her email that she wanted to celebrate who our mom had been on that day by sharing her favorite memories of her. She asked that we respond by sharing our own favorite memories. Instead of being a mess, I ended up smiling to myself all day as I thought of the stories we'd all emailed to one another.
I hope you find a way to celebrate the person your brother had been tomorrow. Good luck with finals.
I don’t know if there’s any more I need to say about this all. I’d realized through various comments she made during our class that H. was close to her mother. I myself had never shared until that email that my mom had passed away. I keep thinking of this girl having lost her 20-year-old brother at the end of her senior year of high school and then heading off to college three months later. I keep thinking of her parents at home, having two kids gone from them – one so devastatingly gone, and one embarking on adulthood for the first time. I keep thinking about what it must be like to spend your entire freshman year grieving and also doing what you’re supposed to do.
H. did not need to respond to my email. But she did, and quite honestly. I’d already been thinking to myself that I wished I had a way to share with that girl how smart and mature and beautiful she is, because a person should know this about herself. Especially when she is just nineteen. I thought: Here is your chance to respond with equal honestly.
It was good to know she felt helped by my first email. I felt helped by the note she sent to me. In this exchange, it showed itself to me – the most exciting and meaningful reason to embark on actions outside of your comfort zone. There exists the mere possibility of discovering the connective tissue between yourself and people who are, on the surface, entirely different human beings. To discover it is like winning the lottery; it is like becoming a more grown and richer person – but to discover that invisible connection means first being open to the possibility.
SONGS: Redemption Song, Bob Marley and I Found a Reason, Velvet Underground
the sound of laughter.
After my first triathlon on April 6th, the rest of my class was training for a full length event on April 19th, but I was not. I got lazy. I attended classes, but I skipped workouts here and there. On April 19th, my classmates did their second event, and our class ended. Then I got REALLY lazy. I managed to stop swimming all together.
A week before my second triathlon, a wave of reality hit. I realized I better get back to work. On Monday I went to swim and I could barely swim 100 meters. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? Panic. I began to swim every day, trying to build back up to the 350 meters I would need to do for my triathlon. On the Friday before, I managed to do 300 meters, resting for about a minute between each 100.
It was not looking so good.
On the day of the event, I rushed to the site, got registered, set up my transition area, and ten minutes before the race began, I decided to have a look at the pool to help relax me. I walked into the Natatorium. My eyes grew at the sight before me. An Olympic sized pool?! This was not relaxing at all. This was terrifying. And unexpected. And it made my breath short.
Here is what I did. First, I put myself in the last group of swimmers – the ones who would swim the 350 meters in 15 minutes or more. (I had timed myself at 14 minutes). Since we all wore ankle bracelets with chips in them that began timing when we entered the water, we were really competing against ourselves. This gave me an extra twenty minutes to calm down.
One: I stretched. Calves. Hamstrings. Arms. Neck. Quadriceps. Over and over, I stretched.
Two (simultaneous to stretching): I observed. I watched swimmers who entered the water first get tired, flip over to do back stroke. Some alternated between freestyle and sidestroke. I saw some struggling to swim with their heads above water. I realized that I am not the only person who struggles with swimming. Even if these other women are faster, they’re not necessarily better, and swimming isn’t necessarily easy.
Three: I strategized. If I get tired and can’t make it from one end of the pool to the other, nothing is stopping me from hanging onto the ropes if I need to. If I need to rest at the end of the pool lane, there is no person who will tell me not to rest. If, while I’m swimming, I need to flip over and do backstroke, there’s no reason not to.
Four: I breathed. Breath from your diaphragm. Nice. Slow. Full. Breaths. No more being short of breath. Nice. Slow. Full. Breaths.
Five: I comforted someone else. As I quietly breathed and stretched and watched and thought, there were four girls behind me who were talking and talking and talking about how scared they were. About how crazy they were to think they could do this. I turned to them. I said aloud: “If you need to rest midway, hang onto the lane ropes. Nothing is stopping you from doing so. If you need to take a minute at the end of the lane to catch your breath, take it. No one’s gonna tell you not to. Just do whatever you need to do to finish. Because you can finish." Then, firmly, I added, "You can do it.” Hearing the words come from my mouth made me remarkably calm.
Six: I had a revelation at the perfect moment. Just as I was about to enter the pool, I thought, You love to swim. You LOVE the water. Why are you scared of a thing that brings you such joy? Get in there and have fun for god’s sake. If you’re gonna do something you love, have FUN while you’re doing it! Simple and startling revelation. My god, I am right! And getting into the water, I felt really, really happy.
Seven: I remembered something as easily as I'd put it in the bottom of my psyche. My mom could never swim. She was scared of the water, and I have never been.
Eight: I had an idea. Mom, I’m going to take you on the funnest swim you’ve ever been on. Get on my back and let’s GO.
GO. The woman called. And I WENT. Steady. Steady. Steady. Until I bumped someone’s foot. Oh my god. I need to pass her. I shoved my head back under the water and passed her. Oh my god. I just passed someone. Mom, are you having fun? Let’s go. And I swam. And swam. And swam. Freestyle all the way. I passed someone else. And another woman. And another. My husband counted six. A record ten minutes and 58 seconds later, I was done.
Here is the thing. I hadn’t thought once of my mother at the last event. And even at this one, I wasn’t thinking of her. I thought I was doing this entirely for me. But something about deciding that I would swim for her made it easy for me. And, yes. I felt her presence as real as I felt the water.
We swam like whales, me carrying her on my back, her laughing. When I got to the end of my 350, I could have done another 350. Bliss. This is what swimming is supposed to feel like, and I got to let my mother experience it with me. It was the most fun I’ve had in a pool in a long time.
I ran out of the Natatorium and rushed to my bike. When I got out of the transition area and mounted my bike, the conversation continued. Come on, mom. I’m taking you on a bike ride. Let’s GO.
My mom, born in India in 1938, wanted to learn to ride a bike as a girl. And she’d begun. When her father told her it wasn’t a thing that girls should do, she stopped as quickly as she’d begun.
Riding on River Road, I envisioned her – aviator sunglasses, circa 1980, a red, white and blue scarf wrapped around her head and tied under her chin, red lipstick, pale blue jeans, a white cotton sweater with short sleeves and tiny flowers embroidered on the front. There she was riding on my handle bars and laughing. The faster I rode, the harder she laughed.
I noticed the wind only once, and when I noticed it, I heard my own voice inside: Mom, you ready to ride really fast? And we pushed through.
When I got back to the transition area, I dismounted, put my bike up and ran, ran, ran. I didn’t need to stop once to walk.
There was a photographer on site, and when I saw the event photos, I noticed that I have the stupidest grin across my face in each and every snapshot. Mom and I must’ve been having a really good time.
While the class I trained with had not been training for this particular event, three of the girls in it decided to register to compete. So when I first arrived, I was thrilled to see them all. My instructor and one guy from the class came to cheer everyone on.
After the race, we decided to go eat together. One of the guys, k. stayed to hear them announce the results because he had to work in the afternoon and wouldn’t have time to sit down to eat.
At the restaurant, I was on a surprising high, knowing that my mom had been with me at every turn. But of course, I chose not to share this with everyone. I think I made a remark to one girl that I focused by talking to my mom who’d passed away. But it was more than just talking to my mom. I felt her presence in a way that was as absolutely real as feeling the wind brush across your cheek or feeling the sun warm the back of your neck. And I hadn’t asked for it the way I’ve asked for dreams. I didn’t even consider it as a possibility.
While we were eating, k. showed up, a smile across his face and a metal hung around a pink ribbon in his hands. “Herpreet! You placed 3rd in your age group.” I was stunned and happy and disbelieving.
My mom and I went for a swim and a bike ride. And it was the most fun we’ve had together in years. I discovered the best reason of all for continuing to do triathlons. In memory of my mom. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough each time to do with her two things she never could do, two things I love to do, and two things I am getting better at every day.
I spent my entire Sunday feeling more proud of myself than I’ve felt in a long time. And blessed to know that my mom will show up when I need her to, but also, now and then, just to have some fun – she was that way. Feisty. Spontaneous. Adventurous.
Mother's day is this weekend. And my mom's birthday is this month. On the 27th. She would've been 70. So she gave me a gift showing up, and it allowed me to give her a gift. This swim and this bike ride. And when I ran, I think she just let me go. I think she just stood back and watched.
I wish everyone could have heard her the way I could hear her laughing on our bike ride.
And I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow, because, now I’ve got to do work that pays. And because. This is a lot for me to digest still. All of this. I am still digesting.
SONG: I Found a Reason, Velvet Underground.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
As long as I can remember, I have loved the water. Being near water. Being in water. When c. and I have contemplated where in the world we would be willing to live, I have always said that I absolutely cannot be landlocked. My older sisters tell me that when I was very young – two, three, four – they hated taking me to a pool in summers because I was fearless. Taking me to a pool meant they couldn’t casually relax with their friends for fear that I’d be off jumping in the water and drowning.
I love the water. I know. I said this. But being submerged in water – an ocean, a lake, a pool – it makes me feel remarkably joyful. I am amazed by water and its ability to bear and support millions of life forms.
When I was eight or nine, I watched a documentary about women who delivered their children submerged in water. I was fascinated, and I told my mom that I wished I’d been a water baby. She said, “Well, maybe one day you can have water babies.” (So you can understand why I was completely shocked to have a panic attack in the water at my first triathlon.)
I hadn’t been able to say why it was important to me to train for and complete a triathlon. I’m not the most athletic person in the world. Correction. I am not an athletic person. But I am certainly drawn to particular athletic activities. Swimming. Biking. Hiking.
I’ve always wished to be really good at these things, in spite of the fact that I am not. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was nine. When I was around four or five, my uncle tried to teach me how to ride a bike. Hell. Everybody tried to teach me how to ride a bike. Running beside me, then behind me, then letting go. And I would crash. I could never find my confidence or my center of gravity on two wheels, so I was stuck with the training wheels. And at a certain point, it just gets embarrassing to ride with training wheels.
It was when I lived in Delaware and befriended the boy next door that I learned to maneuver on two wheels. This kid was always on his bike, and he was the only person who I had to play with. So I don’t know if I asked him to teach me to ride, or if I just played around on his bike enough that I caught the hang of it, but I learned. I finally learned to ride a bike. Yet, as an adult, I’ve never felt totally secure on a bike.
Part of training for a triathlon involved my desire to get better at two activities that I like, but that I’m not particularly good at. I had also shed twenty pounds between July ’07 and January ’08, and I wanted to find a way to keep the weight off without being stuck in a gym. I thought that training for a triathlon would help me get into exercising in the great outdoors, and that completing a triathlon would be a way for me to celebrate my weight loss and my health in general. But I never felt convinced that these were the deepest reasons for my desire to compete in a triathlon.
Sometimes, you understand your reasons for doing the things you do only after you have done the deeds. Sometimes, you make tiny connections with perfect strangers that help you know there are even greater reasons why you were supposed to do what you have done.
On Sunday, I completed my second triathlon. No panic attacks. No falling off my bike. No dropping my water bottle. It was a completely blissful event. And I found my reason, after the fact, for why competing in a triathlon was so very important to me. I found the reason why I will make every effort to continue training for triathlons. Don’t you know? It all comes back to my mother.
But just as I was digesting this reason, a second and more surprising reason revealed itself. It is the connections that you make with your fellow competitors, perfect strangers to whom you are perfectly connected. If you are very lucky – as I have become, you discover more than the surface connections between you, but instead the actual connective tissue that binds you as human beings in the world.
The story of my second triathlon, how I discovered my mother’s place in this adventure, and the sheer luck of connecting to a perfect stranger – I’ll share these with you in my next post.
SONG: Summertime, Miles Davis (but I really wanted Right Now, Charles Mingus - not available on Playlist)
Changed to: I Found a Reason, Velvet Underground