All art is collaboration, coincidence, kismet

Because in high school I was fascinated by Spoon River Anthology, and 15 years ago came close to finishing a poetry manuscript with the working title Yearbook, and two years ago met a writer whose memoir blew open my ideas about both poetry and memoir, and sometime in October saw an article about Marian Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead floating by in my Facebook feed, and two weeks ago attended the reading of a writer-teacher I first met a quarter-century ago, and earlier this month joined an online poetry writing group and last week found myself commenting to another writer there, “I’ve never written about my work as an educator, not really. I guess instead I have migraine and fibromyalgia,” and the next day a second-grader took a swing at me and a first grader with the oldest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child’s face began meditating in the middle of library read aloud, and the writer-teacher reminded me 2 days ago that “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” I have a written a piece that is, perhaps, the beginning of something my whole life has been leading me to.

The Student Who Shot My Other Student

He was a quiet boy, a sandy-haired freshman in the second row of my second period class. Unremarkable, really. I liked him, and not just because it was my first year of teaching and I was open to liking all of them. (I wasn’t. That didn’t come until later.) I liked him, maybe, because there was nothing not to like.

I wish I could tell you more than that about him. But it was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t remember much beyond the top of his head, bent over his desk while he wrote, and his eyes that watched me when I talked to the class. I remember them as kind, but maybe they were simply absent of malice. Maybe I’ve filled them with what I wanted to be there.

I remember him more for what he wasn’t than what he was.

I didn’t know, then, that a secretary’s voice on the intercom announcing an emergency faculty meeting is usually a call to tragedy.

The boy he shot and killed in a dispute over drugs (in a mountain quarry not far from a place I would live after fleeing the city)–that boy was my student, too, though in a different period. A boy with hair bleached loud as his mouth, a joker. I liked him, too, though he was trouble and troubled. I hadn’t known they were friends. My colleagues met the news with silence or sighs before treading back to their lives. I walked numb from the choir room to the parking lot, shocked by all I didn’t know, throat thick and arms slack, for once empty of papers to grade. After dinner that night, I made a new seating chart for each class.

Later, when I was pregnant with a son, his teacher father and I struggled to choose a name for him. For nearly every one we considered, one or the other of us had an association with a student. Each name belonged too much to someone else or to hard memories we didn’t want attached to our dream.

In the end, though, we gave him the name of the student who shot my other student. It was a family name on both sides of ours and the only one we both wanted. At the time I told myself I was claiming something I shouldn’t have to give away, and that the boy I’d hardly known had nothing to do with the one I would raise. Now I like to think it could have been a different kind of claiming, a way of calling home the man-child who once sat in the second row with his head bent over his papers, a kid who, but for the grace of any of our gods, might have been any of ours. I like to think it could have been, maybe, a way of filling the seats left empty in the rooms he once occupied.

The Morning I Notice My Old Wedding Ring

Because it was there to notice in the cardboard box where I once put it, the box in which I keep all my earrings

(because I’m not a jewelry person, the kind of woman who owns enough jewelry to warrant a proper box), the box I keep meaning to go through and clean out

Because so many of the earrings are missing mates that aren’t going to reappear, no matter how much I once loved them–that funky teardrop turquoise one, my birthstone; or the expensive gold hoop my parents gave me; or that silver heart-shaped one I lost somewhere in the old house, the one I lived in with the man I didn’t marry–and

Because for some reason I notice it this morning, when it’s been there so long that I usually don’t, and

Because I am in a place where, it seems, so many things must be tested, I stop to try it on my finger to find that it no longer fits, and then I wonder

Why I keep it and all the earrings I will never wear again, and

Why I never quite know what to do with things that no longer fit, and

Why I am not the kind of woman who would ever have an asymmetrical number of piercings, or who might wear a mis-matched pair, and

Why I am the kind of woman who hangs onto things she loves past their point of usefulness, and

Why I can’t part with a wedding ring even though the circle has been broken, and

Because I don’t have any of the answers, and

Because perhaps some day my children might want this piece of metal bent into the shape my finger once was, this little glittering rock to tell them that they came from something that mattered enough for their mother to hold onto an emblem of it,

I put it–all of it, the ring and the questions and the becauses–back into the box and go on with my day, knowing it will not be one in which I discard anything

Just because.

***************

I’ve never been able to commit to NaNoWriMo (or any other WriMo that requires doing a prodigious amount of writing every day in the month of November), but this year I did decide to join an online poetry writing group that runs Nov. 1-30, led by Jena Schwartz. This writing (poem?) came from one of the prompts Jena provided to the group this week. I have decided that for me, writing might be not unlike exercise:  I’d like to think I can just go it alone, but I probably can’t. There’s a synergy that comes from reading others’ words and talking about their words that I can’t manufacture on my own, a force that energizes whatever it is that makes me want to find my own. And, like exercise, there is a value in just showing up, putting yourself out there and doing the work, even if it’s not a contest for a prize. That’s what publishing this piece here is for me. I appreciate whatever it is that comes from being part of this group that made me stop and think about why I noticed my old ring and what it means that I still have it–which makes this, in some ways, also like the kind of daily gratitude practice some take on for the month of November. It’s been a well-spent $30.00.

 

In the middle of the beginning of the end

It is the first week of November.
The roses are blooming, still.

The petals blush and bloom outside the window where I sleep, and they are lovely in a gangly, over-grown way, but I am starting to wonder if pink is the color of doom, a gentle warning from a planet warming.

I remember a childhood summer day, Marie Osmond crooning on the radio about paper roses while I dug rivers and tunnels in my grandparents’ garden. Summer was mild sun and dusky July raspberries and watermelon with seeds and Puget Sound water so cold it almost made your teeth chatter just to look at it. Today I look out the window to the roses and wonder if I will ever have grandchildren who will know such summer days, or if instead I will have grandchildren who look forward to the brambly November blooms of feral roses. (Will I have grandchildren?)

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s always the end of the world as we know it.

In the first week of November I spend a Sunday afternoon at the library, listening to a poet I know talk about the role of poetry in times such as these. On this last Sunday before the election that will be the end of one thing and the beginning of something else, I sit in a room and listen to the words of a poet who first came into my life 27 years ago, right before the first time the life I was living ended and I had to find my way to a new one, and who appeared again at a later time when another life was ending. Perhaps that is why I have come to listen to what he might tell me today. Perhaps I am looking for the kind of support his words offered through those other transitions.

I want to enter into his words, but I cannot. The room is filled with gray hair and white skin, and we are sitting in the open space at the top of three flights of marble stairs, and while part of me fills with something like awe for our humanity and faith in such things as poetry and libraries, another part of me wonders if we are all fiddling away this fall afternoon while our Rome burns, if we should be out knocking on doors and sounding the alarm and telling everyone we know to vote, vote, vote instead of listening to the gentle poet’s gentle words about writing and living and folk songs.  I doze off while sitting up, his words and music (because yes, there is music–guitar, not fiddle) more lullaby than anything else.

I wake up to these words, with these words:  “Poetry is a luxury that could save your life. So maybe it can save your country.”

I am a poet.
I don’t write poetry any more.

He tells us that poets don’t have to be great writers. They have to be great observers, able to catch the poems as they wander by.

How can poetry be both luxury and necessity? How can roses bloom in the season when flowers are supposed to die?

The first week in November I am reading Anne Lamott,* who tells me that all truth is paradox “and this turns out to be reason for hope.” She tells me,

“…paradox is an invitation to go deeper into life, to see a bigger screen instead of the nice, safe lower left quadrant where you see work, home, and the country. Try a wider reality, through curiosity, awareness, and breath. Try actually being here.”

I put things out in the world, things that feel important for everyone to know: the caravan is a humanitarian crisis; the president lies; our kids don’t have librarians to teach them how to find sources of truth. Only a few people seem to reach out to catch them, these little nuggets of doom I offer the way some people offer prayer. “You think that if you just explain everything clearly enough, other people will understand and do the right thing,” a friend tells me in a conversation about how I am naive.

In the first week of November it is the mundane things I share that friends latch on to: a Halloween candy debacle, my clogged plumbing, my acceptance of leggings as pants. Maybe this is more fiddling, but I don’t think so. Maybe it is a kind of grabbing for life rings to keep us afloat in waters we don’t really know how to swim. We have a debate about leggings that is also about norms and appropriateness and oppression (OK, so I’m the only one who brought up oppression), and we all talk about how our ideas about leggings have evolved. For my daughter and her friends, this is a non-issue, a ridiculous conversation. For them, leggings have always been pants. That’s just how it is. Perhaps roses blooming in November will just be how it is for them, too.

The world is ending, as it always has, always will, and the most improbable things are getting me through it. My old, toothless, and increasingly threadbare dogs. Characters in books I haven’t read in decades (Francie Nolan and Harriet M. Welsch and Ole Golly.) German pancakes in a neighborhood bakery that fills with people and sunshine and sugar on weekend mornings. Friends who live half a continent away, people I’ve never met in real life but who give me comfort and laughter, a conduit to joy not possible in the world I was born into. One of them writes to me in the first week of November,

“Nostalgia kills me. Either I dwell on negatives I can’t change or I miss the positives that are gone and not coming back. So what works is focusing on the present…. The moment is right where I belong.”

And later in the first week in November, at the end of a long day, I walk out of school to a nearly empty parking lot and am struck by a wonder of red leaves swirling to the ground in the golden light of a sun about to set. I am weary and frustrated and going home to a house empty of anyone but those tired dogs, but in that moment I breathe in the joy of those leaves, that light, and it becomes something palpable, a good weight in the pit of my stomach. I share this moment later with my friend who belongs in the moment, though we may never share moments through anything other than code that represents them, and only after the moments have passed.

This moment in time is full of paradox, endings that are beginnings and beginnings that are endings. All moments in time are.

Each night I go to sleep alone next to the window next to the roses and remember when I didn’t sleep alone. My life isn’t what I thought it would be, what I want it to be.
I love my life.

The roses, they are breaking me.
The roses, with their common, uncontrollable beauty, they are saving me.

At the reading, after I wake up, a woman sitting behind me asks a question. I recognize her voice, though I haven’t heard it in nearly 10 years. She is the friend of a friend I once had, another poet whose words helped save me when I needed saving. How I have missed Sarah, miss Sarah still, will always miss Sarah, who died too soon, and our friendship that died with her before it had a chance to fully bloom. How I sometimes miss that life I was living when she was my friend and her friend was someone I knew, a life filled with mothering and teaching and writing poetry and living on a mountain where the seasons behaved as I expected them to. How grateful I am for the missing.

Before the reading ends and the poet puts his guitar away, I pull out my yellow pad of paper and begin writing these words. I don’t talk to the poet who gave the reading or the one who asked the question, but in writing I feel connected to them just the same, and grateful for the gifts they are giving me, these words among them. After I capture all the poetry I can in prose, I walk down the three flights of steps and outside the library, where I take photos of the leaves and the light before getting in my car and heading home to my dogs and my solitude and my roses.

I don’t really know anything.
I know more than I ever have.

*From Almost Everything:  Notes on Hope, 2018.

 

 

 

 

Unpacking

Why, yes–I did move back in May. And yes,  I’m still unpacking.

I’m down to the boxes where I find the kinds of things that can gut you just a little bit, if you let them.

I have always loved this photo of my girl. There’s something in it that captures exactly who she was then and is now and, I suspect, will always be. It’s in the line of her mouth, the set of her shoulders, the directness of her gaze. And, too, in the flush of her cheeks and the tender curves of her legs, dangling because they are too short, yet, to rest on the pegs meant to support them.

Earlier today,  I wrote a long-postponed letter to the daughter of a man I loved when he and I were young, who wanted to know more about the person her deceased dad once was, and I shared tea with someone from high school who I didn’t know then but wish I had, and sun shone through the rain-splattered window we sat next to and warmed us as our talk flitted from one age we’d been to another, quickly, as if we knew we couldn’t fit nearly enough of three decades of living into a too-short hour, so later this afternoon, when I lifted the flaps of a box to find this photo that I framed nearly twenty years ago, past and present wove themselves into a sheer tapestry shot through with metallic threads of joy and grief and gratitude and regret, forming a scene in which words such as “past” and “present” have no meaning, in which everyone I love and have loved and will love were simultaneously all the ages they ever were and ever will be–and just for a fleeting moment, it was almost as if I could hold it all in my hands, tangible as actual fabric, almost as if I could put words to it that could tell the excruciatingly beautiful facts of our brief existence true.

But I couldn’t. This is the best I could do.

I’m still looking for the right place to put these things, a shelf that can hold the weight of them.

 

The life you save may be your own

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.”
~Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

When I was a girl, stories were everything to me:  solace, companionship, beacon, and guide. Much later, stories literally saved my life.

The story I’ve been telling myself this past week is that we are living in a dark time. I believe this story to be true, even though I’ve wanted to believe otherwise–to believe that, perhaps, I’ve got the story wrong or that I’m not seeing all of it or that I’m giving too much importance to the wrong details. I think there is great danger in telling ourselves stories we want to believe even though they aren’t true. I believe this because of my own story, the harm I’ve done because I believed stories that later collapsed around me.

I am fully cognizant, though, that others in my country are telling themselves an entirely different story about who we are and what is happening to us. About who are the protagonists and antagonists and what the central conflict is, about whether that conflict is internal or external.

While there is so much I don’t know, and the versions of the dark story I am telling myself shift so much that I can’t seem to chart a constant course through it–some days fired up to take action and others so hopeless I retreat to silence and solitude–one thing I always believe in is the power of story to shape story.

So many of the stories I grew up believing have proven to be false. So many of the stories I’ve told myself have, the past few years, turned out to be fairy tales or myths or wishes more than truths.  The wonderful thing about being a writer, a teller of stories, though, is that you know revision is always an option. When we are open to the stories of others, we always run the risk that it will change our own–that we will realize we have to “kill our darlings,” perhaps throw out whole chapters or abandon what once seemed like the whole point of the thing. To some, I guess, this feels like ruin. We love our stories, and we don’t want them to change. But to me, it feels like possibility and relief. How amazing and interesting and freeing, that none of us are the sole authors of our plot line or themes, that it is always something we create in concert and collaboration with others, that a plot twist we never anticipated can save us. It’s such a burden, isn’t it, to feel that we alone must carry the weight of writing our own story? Maybe we can set that one down.

Whatever story you are telling yourself now, what I hope is that you will tell it to others, that we will all tell our stories to each other and listen to them with empathy. I hope you will listen most to the stories of reliable narrators, those who are seeing clearly rather than clinging to sinking ships and in their panic thrashing at and pushing under those who are in the water to save them. I hope we can collectively write and tell and share our way to a lighter time, to a narrative in which we strapped our lifeboats together and hauled into them as many of us as they could hold.

 

Autolessonography

It’s my birthday today, and birthdays alway get me thinking about big, heavy, existential questions–like, what’s the meaning of life? (Hey, clearly I was born this way. That’s a pretty serious baby in that photo up there.)

As mine approached this year, I found myself reflecting on all the things life has taught me in my various trips around the sun–which got me thinking that a list of such lessons might make a cool sort of autobiography. (This is what play looks like for me. See? I can have/be fun, too!)

So, here’s my autolessonography. Would love to see yours, if you’re  inclined to write one.

  1. Walking is better than crawling, but crawling will get you there.
  2. A grandma’s lap is soft and safe.
  3. We cannot walk into other people’s houses as if they are our own.
  4. When your grandma tells you that you can choose a stuffed animal to take home, legs that hurt so much they couldn’t take another step can suddenly sprint down the aisle of Newberry’s.
  5. The world contains wrongs that others will not see or respond to, even when you point them out to those who have the power to right them–such as that in kindergarten, only the boys can build things with the super-cool cardboard bricks and only the girls can play in the boring pretend kitchen.
  6. The purpose of first grade is learning to read, which is worth enduring the petty tyrannies of school.
  7. Happiness is a warm puppy, and contentment is writing at a desk in Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom while the radiator clangs and rain taps against the second-story window panes.
  8. Sadly, there is no Marguerite Henry for canine lovers, and a fervent equine passion would create more intimate bonds with your human friends, but we can only love what we actually love, even if we are loving it mostly by ourselves.
  9. Written words read aloud can fill a room with a kind of silence that feels the opposite of empty.
  10. As your age increases, the number of gifts you get at Christmas decreases.
  11. Pluto is a planet, and reports about planets are boring and stupid, especially if your planet is the smallest one and you have to write it with others who don’t do their share of the work.
  12. We can be cruel for reasons we do not understand.
  13. There is, perhaps, nothing lonelier than being the only sober person at the party.
  14. If you grow your hair long and get your braces off and ditch your glasses and your body slows its growing upward just enough to start growing out, boys who never cared about you suddenly will, giving you attention that feels like equal parts desire and disregard.
  15. Being popular requires skills that can be learned.
  16. The colors of the cars in the pictures on the driving test are not part of some code that reveals the correct answers to the questions.
  17. Sometimes, the wrong people die.
  18. Breaking up with a boy who treats you badly because he is too chickenshit to break up with you will gut you because you know that you’re the one who’s really being dumped, and, sadly, mustering up a modicum of self-respect is a comfort so small it’s no salve for the wound.
  19. Free-falling from the nest into open air is exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting and lonely.
  20. If you buy three weeks’ worth of underwear, you don’t have to do laundry very often.
  21. Your ideas about who people are–including yourself–can be delightfully wrong.
  22. A life of the mind is worth cultivating, even if it breeds discontent. Maybe especially if it breeds discontent.
  23. Despite what everyone has told you, you can, in fact, get a “real job” through the want ads.
  24. Cubicles will never be for you.
  25. Wandering into a mall pet store because the record store isn’t open yet and walking out with a puppy is the type of impulse purchase one is likely to regret.
  26. Moving away from all of your friends and family to start a new career in a new city will put a strain on a young marriage that can break it.
  27. We are capable of doing things we never thought we could, in ways both good and terrible.
  28. Second weddings can be better than first ones, even if they are tinged with sadness and regret and a deep understanding that so many more things than death can do the parting.
  29. Alcoholic loggers in small-town mountain bars can be wiser and more well-read than those with college degrees.
  30. Life can blind-side us in ways we could never imagine, anticipate, or prepare for.
  31. The idea that God never gives you more than you can handle is a bunch of crap.
  32. Barrenness has its own kind of beauty.
  33. Conceiving your children with your feet in stirrups and your legs spread wide in a bright, sterile room while your doctor and husband chit chat about their golf games is a loss so cloaked in privilege it feels wrong to be anything but grateful (but it’s not, something you won’t truly understand until you hit lesson #43).
  34. Once you become a parent, you can never again be nonchalant about your own existence.
  35. Every child in every classroom is as beloved to someone as your child is to you–which means you can never again give your students anything less than your best.
  36. Some years there are no memorable lessons, which is its own kind of lesson.
  37. If you are a poet, you are a poet. An award does not make this any more or less true, especially the morning after you win it.
  38. Your children can be the love of your life.
  39. When the children were toddlers and wouldn’t potty-train and you assured yourself, “They won’t be wearing Pull-Ups in kindergarten,”  you were right. Which means you won’t have an elaborate tucking-in ritual to perform every night when they are in middle school–and you’ll likely miss that when it’s gone, too.
  40. You may not realize that your only real friend is your only real friend until she is suddenly gone and you have no one to grieve that loss with or help you understand what it means about your life that you have no real friends in it.
  41. If you have to hide who you are to keep someone’s love, you never really had it.
  42. The beautiful, painful, uncomfortable poignancy of human existence will often coalesce on the pinpoint of a singular, absurd moment–such as one on a cold January night when a group of late-middle-aged women dress their lumpy, bumpy bodies as angels in white tights and leotards and dance, badly, with solemn earnestness in a school cafeteria for a small-town Christmas recital that was delayed from December because of inclement weather, and the fathers of the young girls who are also dancing in said recital agonize over where to put their eyes and how to compose their faces and how to dance the line between their mirth and disdain such that they will neither incur the wrath of their wives nor betray the women their own daughters may grow to be.
  43. Sometimes we cannot comprehend pain fully until we are relieved from it.
  44. You will take calculated risks to follow a dream because your daughter is watching and when she is your age you want her to follow her dreams, even if it’s not entirely safe–because you know now that following dreams is never entirely safe.
  45. One person’s calamity is another person’s opportunity.
  46. It’s probably good to consider the person who, someday, is going to hate that wallpaper you think is such a good idea today.
  47. Starting over is never-ending.
  48. A person can write a new chapter to a story in your life that you thought was finished, and it will make you revise all the ones that came before it.
  49. Your children will feel pain that you are powerless to alleviate, and that will hurt worse than any of your own.
  50. You should never tolerate abuse in your own home. Ever. From anyone. No matter what it costs to end it.
  51. Story-telling is powerful good magic.
  52. Our hearts can break over and over and over but it doesn’t mean we are broken.
  53. Real love is never conditional, and our capacity to give it is limitless.

 

True Story

Anne Lamott rather famously wrote, ““You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Which sounds so good, doesn’t it? So empowering and simple and sure. It implies such clear lines–between your stories and mine, warm writing and cold, good behavior and bad.

Would that this were true.

I recently published a story on this blog about a reunion with an old, cherished friend, T., one I’ve seen only a few times in the past 25 years, in which I shared some of our past behavior. I asked her if she was OK with me publishing it and she said yes, but then her feelings changed.

Her shift puzzled me, and it left me feeling that perhaps our friendship wasn’t what I thought it was, or that I don’t know my friend as well as I think I do.

“Of course you don’t,” my therapist said, when I talked about this with him. “You haven’t really known her for 25 years. Are you the same person you were 25 years ago?”

“No,” I said. “But also yes.” His eyebrows raised. (I suspect my therapist and Anne might get on splendidly.)

“Both,” I said. “Both are true.” (But I wasn’t sure.)

I took the post down–which I had offered to do before T.’s feelings changed (or before she felt able to express them to me, or before she really knew them–whichever is the truth of what happened for her)–but it bothered me some to do so, and the bothering’s been niggling at me.

I’ve been trying to write about it for days bordering on weeks now, and I can’t seem to get it right, to pin down what the story of this story really is, what’s at the root of the bother and niggle.

Somewhere in the midst of wondering and writing and pondering, my blogging friend Kate shared the image at the top of this post. It sent me to the whole of the e.e. cummings poem the words in the photo are from, and in them I found a bit of an answer to at least part of the question:

(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

In the “you” of the poem I saw not some other person, some lover, but the girl I was once was. The person I was when T. and I were young is a person I’ve had to work hard to love. I spent years trying to kill her, as if eradication were the only path to redemption. I didn’t understand, then, the truths that the poem reminds me of, now:  That anywhere I go, she goes, too, forever. That whatever I have done or will do will always be, in some ways, her doing. That I will always carry her heart within my heart. That if she was not worthy of love then, then I am not, now–because I am still her, and she is me.

Taking the post down felt too much like all the years I buried that girl, too much like there was something shameful in who we were, or, perhaps, that there was something shameful in telling our story.

Not long after I read the poem, my daughter sent me a text: “If you can’t hold love for something and critique it at the same time, you’ll never be able to love anything.” It was about an entirely unrelated matter, but everything is connected, isn’t it? It was another breadcrumb on the trail.

A few days later, another story-teller, Maria Popova, pointed me to another poem, “Love After Love,” by Derek Walcott, whose words revealed more of the story:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Walcott’s words helped me see that when T. arrived at my door and time telescoped and I felt a rush of familiar intimacy, as if we were still to each other what we’d once been, it was, in some sense, as if I were greeting myself arriving at my own door–that young self, the one I’d spent so many years feeling ashamed of and trying to erase–and I was nothing but elated to see her. As T. and I talked and laughed and reminisced about who we’d been and what we’d done and how those things impacted the lives we’re living today, I felt full of love not only for my friend–who she was then and who she is now–but also for the stranger who was myself. She was just a girl doing the best she could with what she knew. She was not, as I once thought, weak. She and her friend were stronger than we knew, in part because of our love of and for each other, a love that remains intact over the long distance of a life lived mostly apart. A love that was true, as I strived (but so often failed) to be. A love that holds within it the possibility of another blooming, now that we are again, as we once were in adolescence, in the midst of re-imagining and re-creating our lives.

It was all such a gift–the familiarity, the insight, the love, the hope, even–yes–the redemption–all wrapped in the package of an afternoon visit. It was a gift I wanted to share. So I told the story of it.

There is so much I don’t know. Where are the lines between my stories and those of the people I love? Which stories are ours to tell, and which are not?  How can I know if I’ve told the story right, if I’ve told it true? I suppose I’ll figure the answers out eventually–or I won’t–but what I do know is this:

I am a writer.

No matter what the events–the facts–of any of my stories are and who they most belong to, what I am telling, always, is my story, and I’m always telling the same one:  the story of figuring out how to love myself and all the other flawed humans on this planet (by which I mean, everyone). I do it with the hope that my stories of learning how to love will in some way build the same capacity in whoever reads them–the same way reading other peoples’ stories has built that capacity in me. I do it with faith that this is one of the ways to save the world.

It is my life’s work, loving this way.

I’m sure that sometimes I’ll continue to get it wrong. I am still the girl who is doing the best she can with what she knows. (Isn’t that all any of us are?) No one has silenced me more than me, and I can see now that asking myself not to write has been like asking me not to love, not to be.

And I want to live.

Photo courtesy of Kate.

Lost & Found

“…if you don’t get the thoughts down, they might just get lost forever.”  –Kate Carroll de Gutes

I read these words in the dark of an early, migraine-foggy Saturday morning, and they take me back instantly to my children’s infancy, when I wrote so that I wouldn’t lose all the things I was thinking–and seeing and feeling and understanding–about the profound experience of becoming a mother.

Then I think about how I haven’t written about my son’s journey to becoming a Marine, which, for me, isn’t so much about his experience of becoming a Marine as it is about my profound experience of letting him go. (Because we are all the protagonist in our own lives, right?) And I want–suddenly, urgently–to capture what I can before it is gone:

The way I found myself weirdly giddy to see a letter from him in the mailbox on Thursday afternoons, excited and anxious for mail in ways I haven’t been since I was a girl–because the boy who confided in his sister that he was surprised to miss Mom because she’s so annoying wrote to me, without fail, every week, and sometimes the letters made me laugh and sometimes they made me cry and sometimes they filled me with such deep longing and regret I will never find words big enough to capture how that felt, but it didn’t matter what kind of feelings they would bring because the over-riding emotion, always, was simple gratitude for his crabbed handwriting and his words that were evidence that he wasn’t, as I once feared, lost to me.

The utter, sterile emptiness of his room after I cleaned it up and out, and how that stripped down space seemed metaphor for what remains of my mothering, absent now of all the clutter and detritus that once filled it. There are a few, important mementos still on display, and the room remains his, but it is a room I know will now be used only occasionally, and likely never in the same way again. During boot camp, every once in a while I’d go in there and sit on the bed and look around, and although a part of me felt calmed by the lack of chaos that once defined the space, another part of me wished only to see once again the dirty laundry and discarded homework and empty wrappers and long-abandoned childhood toys that once filled it, wanted even to smell the distinct, peculiar funk of teen-age boy I once thought I’d never be able to eradicate.

The relief and release of a worry I’d been carrying for years, so long I hardly felt its weight until I was able to set it down. The picking up of a new one, and realizing that it is in some ways heavier and in others lighter, and that mothering will always be this picking up and setting down and shifting weight from one arm or hip to the other–for worry is always love swaddled in hope and fear, and I could never set that down for good.

The way I felt oddly shy when I finally saw him and could hear his voice again, how he was both the child I know intimately and a stranger whose boundaries were unclear. How he walked and stood so differently, but from behind I still saw the same sloping line of his shoulders, a cadence in the swing of his hips that remains and belongs only to him. How his brief return home was both exquisite and crucifying, the way it brought him back while nailing us to the truth that who he’d been and how he’d lived was no more, and that we’d both have to build our way to a new life and ways of being, not together, as when he was born, but mostly apart.

As I write these words, not without tears, I think again of how I was able to write so many in the first four years of my children’s lives that I actually had enough for a book, which is astounding, really–that while being ground in the mill of new-parenting (not one, but two preemies), I managed not just to string enough words together to make a book but also to sort and arrange and polish them into an award-winning one–and I see, really see, for the first time that my lamentations for years that I just couldn’t make the time to write were probably bullshit, just like all the published writers who write have always said such lamentations are.

I’m not discounting the real barriers that scarce resources create (and I’ve never met a single parent who has resources in abundance) but today, right now, I think maybe that writing about all the big things of the past decade–death and divorce and the destruction of beliefs and dreams and faith–just might have hurt too much, might have cemented into long-term memory moments that felt too painful to keep.

I got to hear my friend Kate, writer of the epigraph to this post, read recently from the book in which her words appear, and she mentioned that she hasn’t been writing and is in “a fallow time.”

“Me, too,” I said to her after the reading. “But it always comes back, doesn’t it? I’ve gone through it enough times to trust that it will.”

I thought I was saying those words for her, but I can see now, on this first Saturday morning of fall, as both the dark and the pain in my head lift, that I was probably saying them more for me. Maybe enough distance is opening between me and all that hurt that I can get the thoughts down without them taking me down, too, and before I’m so far removed from them that I’ve lost the moments of joy and beauty that are always, always entwined with pain.

Maybe.

Laugh, dammit!

Once, as I was regaling a friend with the latest tale of my ex-husband’s abhorrent (to me) behavior, she laughed so hard she had to wipe tears and said, “You have to write about this! It’s hysterical.”

I was puzzled.

“What do you mean? This is terrible!” I said.

“Oh, I know,” she said. “But the way you tell it is hysterical. Seriously. You have to write about this some day.”

I have never thought of humor as my thing. I was the kid adults described as “7 going on 37.” When I was a preschooler, my grandmother’s sister called me The Judge. Even now, I almost never LOL.

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As I explained on my About page, I once thought I could find my way to lightheartedness and laughter through crafts (hah!), but I’ve recently abandoned that.

Last week I began a class with Kate Carroll De Gutes that promised to teach me how to write about difficult subjects with humor. I signed up not because I feel driven to learn how to write about difficult subjects with humor. I signed up because:

a. I knew I’d need something positive this fall to fill the spaces opening up in my life.
b. I do better creative work with structure. Especially structure I’ve paid money for.
c. I’m still hanging onto the idea that this is the year of Voice.
d. I like Kate, who was in the cast of Portland’s Listen to Your Mother with me earlier this year.

It was really mostly D. For me, whether or not a class is good is almost never about the topic. It’s the teacher–and Kate is a wickedly good writer and a warm, interesting, kind person who does not suffer fools gladly. I knew I would learn stuff from her.

After our first class meeting, I decided that this is probably going to be the best money I’ll spend all fall. (Although I did, this weekend, finally find a pair of jeans that feel good and fit well and that were made in the US and sold in a small, locally owned shop and did not cost more than the hospital bill for my premature twins. That’s right up there, too.)

My biggest take-away so far? Humor doesn’t have to be LOL.

In fact, although I really liked Kate before signing up, I think I might now love her just for saying that she’s not a fan of A Very Popular Humor Essayist because their writing is mean. And that good humor isn’t mean. That being droll is being humorous. That there seems to be, I don’t know, a kind of humor that is serious.  I often find the world (and my walk through it) infinitely amusing, but when I try to share my amusement it seems there are always people telling me to look on the bright side or cheer up or not be so hard on myself or some such thing.

I want to snap at them, “I was being funny, dammit!”

Clearly, there are things I could learn.

Anyway, I’m sharing here a piece of writing I began in our class. Our prompt was something called a list essay (which is, as you’d think by its name, an essay in the form of a list). The topic:  A list of things you won’t do tomorrow.

It took me a bit to get started. My first few attempts were less than riveting:

I won’t wear yoga pants.
I won’t drink a latte.
I won’t wait in the pickup line at school.

Then I started thinking about a concrete tomorrow–the actual tomorrow I was going to be living, which was a Friday on a weekend Cane wouldn’t be home. That sent me down the path of thinking about all the different kinds of Friday nights I’ve lived in my life. The list I wrote (and shared) in class isn’t this one, but it’s what this one started from:

What I Will Not Do This Friday Night

Sit on the couch with my mom and my dog Fritzie, eating popcorn and watching Carol Burnett.

Attend a slumber party.

Lie on the living room floor with Fritzie and not-watch TV while wondering what the tall, skinny boy in the locker next to mine is doing right now.

Go to a high school football game and shake my pom poms in front of the crowd.

Drink a half-rack of Rainer pounders with my boyfriend and eat nachos and call it dinner. Feel rich even though we live in a shitty apartment infested with roaches.

Plan lessons.

Grade papers.

Know, with righteous conviction, that my work matters.

Fall asleep on the couch in front of a movie to avoid sex with my husband, a guy I once ate nachos and drank beer and laughed with on Friday nights.

Go into my babies’ room after they’ve gone to sleep and rest my hands lightly on their chests to make sure they’re still breathing.

Get home from “date night” by 7:00 so our babysitter can make it to the football game.

Snuggle my kids on the couch in front of a Disney movie while their father sleeps in his chair across the room.

Host a slumber party.

Anything with a husband.

Wonder if I should be writing more poems and grading fewer papers.

Make Grandma Spaghetti, which the kids will eat whole platefuls of even though it won’t be as good as Grandma’s.

Swallow hard at a high school football game because the cheerleaders and the jocks and the band nerds and the self-conscious kids shivering in their thin hoodies are so damn tender it makes my throat ache.

Fall in love.

Drive my daughter home from school, wishing I could listen to NPR on the radio but letting her bounce from one synthesized song to another because pretty soon I’ll be able to listen to NPR any time I want to.

Putter contentedly around my home.

Make dinner for my entire family and wish we could get through just one meal together without someone turning silent or mean.

Knock on my daughter’s door and poke my head into her room to tell her goodnight.

Slide between flannel sheets and fall asleep spooned into the body of the man I love.

Know when my daughter slides between her own sheets 3,000 miles away from mine, or what sounds are the last ones he hears before closing his eyes in the apartment that isn’t our home.

Sleep easily.

*****

I know, it’s not funny. But I like to think there are moments of humor in it. Not the LOL kind. But humor the way it so often appears in life:  quietly, on the edges of things, or in the spaces between them.

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Walking my talk, the better late than never version

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I’ve been finding it kinda ironic that I proclaimed “voice” my word of the year, and where I find myself living now is a place that requires me to (mostly) shut up and listen.

But “voice” is what carried me to the Portland production of Listen to Your Mother, which has been one of the best experiences of my year. We performed the show in early May, and last week videos from all of the shows were released online.

I’d sort of forgotten that was going to happen, and when it did I found myself feeling…a whole bunch of things, but, mostly, vulnerable.

A few days after they were out, a  friend from the cast asked me why I hadn’t posted about it on Facebook, and aside from questions about vanity and the general weirdness of seeing oneself on video, I realized that I was wrestling again with  questions about when and when not to publish, and who has a right to tell which stories. It was feeling like one thing to tell a story that involves our children in a blog post, or in a small live performance, but another one to tell it on video and then direct people to that video. I’m still not sure if it is different or not, but it feels like it might be.

I am a deep believer in the power of story and preach (often) the necessity of telling them. I know how important it is for us to tell our personal stories, particularly about topics that carry stigma. I wrote the blog post that became the story I told on stage because I wanted to create something to help others understand what it is like to parent a child with a mental illness. I hoped that doing so might alleviate for someone else the fear, guilt, and isolation I felt early on. It always helps to know that we’re not alone in grappling with a hard challenge.

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But, but, but…

I am a mother before I am anything else, and the world can be a cruel place. There can be real consequences to sharing your membership in a stigmatized group. While I want to serve others, I serve our children first. Always. It is hard, often, to know how to best do that. I want to do my small part to make the larger world a better place (for everyone’s children), but I don’t want to hurt my children’s personal world to do that.

After a fair amount of internal hand-wringing and conversations with good friends, I’ve decided that the potential rewards outweigh the potential risks. So many people right now are being called upon to be brave, in so much larger ways. The hard stories that help us see each other more truly and fully are the ones we most need to tell. So, here’s my offering, my small act of courage, some walk to go with my importance-of-sharing-our-stories talk:

You can click here to get to  the national Listen to Your Mother post that will connect you with all 500+ videos from this year’s productions across the country. You can find videos by location or you can browse featured playlists. (I am feeling really honored that mine was selected as a featured video.) If you couldn’t attend the Portland show and want to experience the next-best thing-to-being-there, you can go to the Portland playlist and watch it in order. Our producers did a fantastic job of putting together an anthology of stories best listened to in the order they were presented. (Nope, not biased at all!)

Before you click over, I warn you:  You may find yourself spending more time there than you planned. The stories (and their tellers) are so compelling. Raw humanity always is, isn’t it?

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Color photos by Elizabeth Sattleberger of Lizilu Photography
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lack-and-white photo by Amy McMullen (of our wonderful cast).