July 3, 2011 § 4 Comments
A few months ago, I looked at my shrink and said, “All I want to do is write. I don’t care if I ever make any money doing it. As long as I can write freely and later go back and read what I have written, I’ll be satisfied.”
On days like today, that sounds like a big pile of Pollyanna drivel. It’s 3:25pm. The deadline was 2pm. I’ve been sitting here for over five hours, manipulating 727 words of clichéd, passive voice crap. My head hurts. I want to delete everything and go lie down. I have no idea where this is going and I’m irritable as hell about it.
I expect to have days like this for the rest of my life. I am a writer.
I’ve written about writing more times than I can count, about how it’s “going in” to what feels like an actual place — a different type of consciousness, about how it’s a process that leads to new thoughts, about how I’ve been doing it “ever since I could shape the letters of the alphabet.”
I’ve got a cabinet in my bedroom filled with (filled and half filled) journals. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on writing classes and seminars. I keep dozens of letters and story drafts saved in binders and on obsolete discs. My worn out copy of “Letters to a Young Poet” has Post-it notes stuck to pages 18, 19 and 29. There’s a broken-spined dictionary within arm’s reach of my desk chair and an electronic one set to pop up with a quick dash of the cursor. I’ve got over 470 blog posts here and another handful back at Thirty Voices.
When I forget to bring paper, sometimes I’ll tear semi blank pages out of whatever book I’m reading and write on those. Napkins work also. I’ve written over newspaper headlines, in the margins of magazines, on brown paper bags. I’ll ask anyone for a pencil. I’ve offered to buy pens from strangers.
It’s not that my thoughts are so insightful or original that they must be preserved. It’s not even that I’ve got a message to communicate or a story to tell.
It’s not that at all.
Then what is it?
It’s as if having an experience is inhaling, and the only way to exhale is to write.
March 6, 2011 § 6 Comments
“People think I’m lying when they hear this.” Or sometimes you’d open with, “People never believe this is the truth when I first tell them.” But you weren’t lying; it was your truth. It was a chapter (or several chapters, depending on how things are organized) of your life, your beautiful life, before you introduced yourself to me.
For entirely different reasons, my chapter about you would begin the same way and carry on with lots of difficult-to-believe truths stacked in a row. Any sensible person would be skeptical of even my first claim that the night we met – perhaps within just an hour or two of the first time we spoke, while getting ready for dinner out alone, I noticed myself rushing. There was no apparent reason for the urgency, but it was so palpable that I questioned it: why do I feel I have to get to Guido’s tonight and why am I hurrying?
A logical person would say I brought that inexplicable urgency and unidentified expectation with me to the barstool where I dined. Perhaps. But you spoke first. I sat minding my own business editing an essay I started that morning in which I had written these lines:
I can’t fathom how people handle facing their mortality. How people prepare to let go of the sweetness of soil and water and sky and leaves. And books and words. How people say goodbye to their very own bodies.
I was keeping to myself when you leaned your head towards my shoulder and started talking, started listening, started thirty thousand other things in motion, all of which felt at once lovely and important and dangerous and irrevocably desirable. Neither of us, no one, would have ever guessed how close you were to dying.
Maybe this is why Genie’s March Living Out Loud writing prompt sends deep pains into my torso. She asks for our thoughts on destiny, how or if we think fate might have played a role in our lives. My answer to that question is this: give me a soundproof room so that I can scream at god until my vocal chords tear. And then leave me in there because I don’t have interest in much else any longer.
Still, if I could go back to that night, the night I felt propelled to Guido’s, and walk past it down the road for seared tuna and sake instead thereby setting in to motion an entirely different future, one without your first uninvited kiss, without my choice to be reckless, without the bruise only we saw, without your death, I would not.
I would do it all over again because being with you was, what did we used to say? “It’s wonderful!” That and eleven or twenty seven other joyful exclamations I would give anything to hear you say again. Unless (unless, unless) the different-seared-tuna-sake-future was one where (never having known me) you could remain alive. Oh, if only you could remain alive, alive as the son, brother, uncle, friend, genius you were for the 99.62% of your days before I met you. If you could remain alive, that would be my utmost preference.
But I don’t think it works that way.
We don’t have a choice in this. And this is not a soundproof room nor is it my chapter about you, so I must wait until I can accept what has happened, and I must speak in polite tones, and I must try not to wound the living.
January 9, 2011 § 3 Comments
“Here it come again!”
My two year old nephew stood on the sand making an important discovery.
“Here it come again!”
At first he sounded surprised.
“Here it come again!”
But then he saw a pattern develop. He moved as close to the water’s edge as we grown ups would allow and watched to test his theory. Sure enough –
“Here it come again!”
– he was on to something. The entire mass of water as far as he could see from left to right slid away from his feet. And it –
“Here it come again!”
– came back. It came back every time.
He stood there for what seemed like an hour. Watching. Announcing with happy excitement.
“Here it come again!”
I think he was as thrilled with the faithful return of the waves as he was with himself for figuring it out. Pronouncing the s-sound remained as distant as the surfer on the horizon, but he had grasped the tide. He’d get his s-sound someday, too.
My nephew is 12 now and the only time I’m assured he’ll make eye contact with me — real sustainable eye contact — is when I’m telling him one of these stories about himself. It’s not the “Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” half-a-glance-torn-from-a-screen type of listening that teens are so good at. It’s the intent kind of listening that betrays all coolness. It’s the paying attention that comes when a mystery is being unlocked. And what better mystery to captivate a person than that of his own identity.
I’ve collected dozens of these tales over the years about both my nephew and my niece. I haven’t written them down yet like I swore I would back around 1998, but the retelling has kept them semi-fresh. The kids don’t remember the events themselves, rather my repeated telling.
In my head, it’s a timeline of cuteness — back in 1997, “Don’t call me I’m a party girl!”; the following year, “I’m four! I was supposed to be BIG today!”; in 2000, “Connaw got ‘tuck by a bumbo-bee!” and later that summer,”It’ my ‘hadow.” I have entire episodes to go with each soundbite. I love telling the stories — need to tell them or I’ll forget the details.
It’s turning out, though, that the details are likely inconsequential. It’s not what I’m telling, but the telling itself that’s building a connection between me and my niece and nephew. My telling proves to them, “I saw you at a specific place and time. And I adored you so much that recalling those moments delights me.”
That’s not to say I go around fabricating events just to create a bond with a boy who would otherwise only have eyes for Call of Duty. All of the stories I share with my nephew are accurate to the best of my recollection.
….the best of my recollection?
Recollection. It’s a topic as vast as the ocean and every bit as polluted. Here it comes again.
Even when we intend accuracy, aren’t we bound for failure?
Are Lerner and Loewe destined to be approximated at best? “You wore a skirt. I was in pants. You turned me down. You had a chance. Ah yes, I remember it well.”
Aside from physical manifestations and consequences, what’s the importance of actual events? Can’t impact be invented after the fact? Or perhaps a better question is: isn’t perceived impact all that matters?
I think half of my childhood “memories” are actually planted by picture albums — not genuine memories at all. When I have images in my mind with no corresponding photographs, those are the fragile thoughts I handle with reverence.
- Happily facing a full length mirror with my uncle while he tied my braids together under my chin, our reflections smiling at each other.
- Two decades later, during his one night in Los Angeles on his way to Hawaii, walking slowly with him to the neighborhood restaurant. Seeing him order veal parmesan, hiding my worry that it may be too rich for him.
- Three years after that, out hiking, receiving the call from his deathbed, climbing the trail higher for a better cell connection so I could hear him tell me good bye, so I could tell him good bye.
Those are memories. I have the absence of photographs to prove it.
While I claimed before the details may not matter, that what matters is the sentiment – the telling – it’s a whole different issue when the only person we have to tell is ourselves.
November 7, 2010 § 2 Comments
Nearly ten years ago I was out with one of the Michaels (every unmarried gay man or woman over the age of 40 has enjoyed more than one Michael). Though most of the details of our short and delightful courtship are faded, on one particular night he said something that I will never forget.
We sat at the bar on a random weekday waiting for our table at one of the best restaurants in West LA.. The venue wasn’t chosen with any celebration in mind, rather, as a course of habit. Every ordinary day brought opportunities to celebrate anything. If you don’t know what I mean, try living in Southern California for more than one calendar year. It had nothing to do with our developing tendencies as a potential couple. It was his nature and mine, to find ourselves with other people’s fine linen draped over our laps several times a week.
I remember saying, “This is a perfectly constructed lemon drop. How’s your martini?”
“It’s good. Everyone gets away with charging twelve dollars for a martini these days, few bartenders actually know how to make one. This is delicious.”
(By the way, that’s not the thing he said that struck me … that line is coming up.)
His mentioning of dollars set my mental treadmill going. Almost a decade later and the same treadmill drones for me now. It sounds like this:
I don’t flinch at the prices any longer. $15 hamburger — which I’ll only eat half of, $13 glass of wine, $18 grilled salmon — again left half uneaten … This type of spending several times a week. I’m paying cash, but surely it could go to better use elsewhere – like, say, UNICEF, not to mention a retirement account. Oh, but first let’s go to Casa Del Mar for the sunset, shall we?
Even before that Michael came along, I remember talking to my brother about whether or not I should buy a convertible. I had discovered that I could actually afford a sports car and it floored me with excitement. K said, “Ruth, just because you’ve got the money for it, doesn’t mean it’s really affordable.” Hm. He had a point. I did not make the purchase.
Restraining myself from succumbing to the Ooh-Pretty-Car-Must-Have virus that runs rampant out here brings the notion of controlling spending within my grasp. But that only adds to the decadence of my penchant for dining out. Increases the guilt. And the pleasure.
So that day with Michael, we sipped our expensive vodka and I let him hear my treadmill drone a bit. I told him all about my weakness for $19 cheese plates and plans to save. I went on and on about interest rates and at a certain point — I can’t remember if he interrupted or if he let me whirr to a stop — he said the thing.
“Or you could just make more money.”
If you’ve read Rich Dad Poor Dad, you’re not surprised. The notion of shattering out of my income bracket had never occurred to me. For Michael, it was a way of life.
“Keep spending. You’ll make more.”
Some of you may be thinking he’s the devil. Evil incarnate sent to encourage another decade of factory farm consumption (not to mention the damage I may be doing to my liver under this rationale). But his perspective enlightened me.
In the years since, I’ve continued spending and earning. Whenever my treadmill cycles round and round with worry over where my funds ought to be going, I still hear Michael say, “Make more.” Whenever I’m tempted to spend more than x dollars on one item, I still hear my brother ask, “What’s the true cost?” But theirs are only two voices of several.
Here’s another, “She already has a shirt.”
Spoken by a friend of a friend. The two were shopping together in the U.S. to find a gift for one to take back to her daughter in Malawi. My friend suggested a blouse. And the African woman replied matter-of-factly, “She already has a shirt.”
This is the spectrum I dwell in. We all do, really, whether or not we choose to think about it. I do. I think about that one shirt worn by a woman on a damaged continent. What does she wear when she washes it? What does she think about when she’s topless doing laundry on a muddy water bank? She’s there scrubbing away while I’m here criticizing Stefan’s interns for overcooking my cheeseburger (subpar, really, they need to step it up).
If I learn from one-shirted-women about the difference between needs and wants, if I follow Michael’s advice and earn more money, if I continue consulting with my brother about how to develop financial discretion, if I stay awake and exercise discipline, I will evolve. Thank god it’s easier than ever to get a nutritionally sound, ethical spending fix these days. I may continue to complain about white napkin lint on my black skirt and waiters who reply, “No problem” instead of, “Of course,” but deep down I’ll know that the $7 I saved by ordering house merlot instead of a Blue Rock Syrah will be going to a good cause. Mend bag, soon you will be mine.
October 3, 2010 § 4 Comments
That’s me and K in 1986 … I’m too rushed & lazy to get his permission to use the unblurred version. Having been to our first Grateful Dead show the summer before, there was only one place I ever wanted to be – and it was not in class in my small suburban farm town. We didn’t normally dress like that but, being class officers, we commandeered the theme of spirit week to allow for as much hippy wardrobing as possible.
I was in love with the idea that the 20 year anniversary of the Summer of Love was upon us. I was in love with a young man who lived 30 minutes away at the state college and did everything I could to be there as often as possible. I was in love with Plato’s Parable of the Cave and completely closed minded towards all the people who I thought were too shallow to get it.
The words behind us on the chalk board say, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. –Tennyson.” God bless the man who put them there. Mr. C.
Mr. C, our AP English teacher. He kept that Tennyson quote up all year long. I think we did it. Strove to enjoy ourselves as much as possible, sought to get decent grades and stay out of trouble while finding maximum fun. No reason to ponder yielding, we were immortal.
Mr. C, also my drama coach all four years of high school, awarded me “Thespian of the Year” in 1987, but I was too busy fleeing All Things Home Town to bother to attend the ceremony. In retrospect, he should have given the award to Alan.
This year, Alan and I met for lunch. Having both lived in Los Angeles for a very long time, and not having seen each other since high school, we were due for a reunion. He reminded me that we had played husband and wife in a theatrical take off on the Adams Family. I had completely forgotten about it. I can understand forgetting mundane details of the past, but forgetting an entire play? One in which I was a prominent character? After he reminded me, my only memory of that show were details of my costume. I wore a very long Elvira wig and a full length black dress, and inches of finger nails — so pointy that undressing for bathroom breaks was nearly impossible. I don’t even have any photos from that show. I’m not fully sure why.
Once, Mr. C bet me I could not write a complete piece on pickles. I can’t find it anywhere but I have a flashing memory of him reading the subsequent essay out loud to the class; his interpretation of my words was engaging. He laughed. In his presence, I felt like I could be good.
Mr. C helped me write the speech I would deliver at graduation–a eulogy for a classmate who died alone in a car accident our senior year. I took a lot of grief for volunteering to give that speech. But it was worth it. In it I said something like, “Although graduation is a time when each of us will go our separate ways, a part of [the deceased] will be with each of us forever.” Was I right? Yes, I think so.
I remember walking in the golf course behind my house being so damned mad at the grass for living.
Mr. C knew me. I think he knew many of his students. Now that I’m probably older than he was when he taught us, I can offer an adult’s approval of that call to action . . . the call to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. It’s right there, behind us . . . written clearly. Pretty much all we needed to learn. My 600 words here don’t come close to processing those years . . . but I’ll remember to strive . . . and not to yield . . . and to publish with pseudonyms.
This is an entry in Genie Alisa’s Living Out Loud project. You can read this month’s prompt here: Living Out Loud Volume 21: Back to School. Or better yet, check out all the fabulous entries at this month’s recap — here.
October 3, 2010 § 3 Comments
Genie, Genie, Genie, don’t make me write about high school. Please. I’m so conflicted about this month’s “Living Out Loud” theme. So much so that I’ve put off until less than two hours before the deadline to start. What’s the topic? I’ll quote our blog co-op mistress directly,
“Tell us about your high school self. In the Breakfast Club version of your school were you the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess or the criminal? Are there people you would love to find from high school? Others you’d love to forget? How do you compare to what you were then? Would your English teacher recognize you? Would he or she be proud of you?”
Here’s my response: No. All of the above. Yes. No. Not sure. Yes. Yes.
There. Am I done?
I could skip participating this month but, in case you haven’t noticed, lately my only blogging has been to share in the “Living Out Loud” project. For that, Genie, I’m so grateful. My biggest goal in life is to write more often, whether I’m afraid of a topic or not. Having a deadline and an assignment is a gift.
Perhaps one place to begin is to ask myself why this topic instills fear in me. For starters, there’s the accountability factor. Most people I remember from high school are my Facebook friends. We associate online now regularly. They remember things about me I’ve long forgotten. If I remember myself one way and I’m hugely off base (a) do I want to even know and (b) how embarrassing. Then there’s the privacy factor. I remember things about my classmates that I have no business writing about publicly. Sure, the post is supposed to be about me, but I wasn’t howling at the moon running from cops at midnight ALONE.
The thing about me and my high school years is that I messed up. It was an age-appropriate time to do so, sure. But I thought I had everything under control. And the whole time, I was laying the ground work for a nervous breakdown. I don’t discuss the details publicly because I don’t want to give the impression of condoning my mistakes to the young people in my life. It’s complicated because I’m not the parent of any of these teens. I’m a mentor. An Aunt. A Godmother. It’s not my place to determine what topics of conversation are appropriate….so I try to keep quiet.
This is what “fiction” is for.
But Genie asks, “Tell us about your high school self….” Sigh. Only one hour left before the deadline. All right. I’ll try.