Tag Archives: memory

the next phase of write it anyway

graffiti

 

 

 

 

 

 

From within, I couldn’t decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
Then I walked outside.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

-Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi, trans. by Coleman Barks

Good morning, good morning. The birds are awake and insistent this morning. the BART train trails across the lower half of my sky. I can hear it long after it’s gone. That’s the way dreams are sometimes, isn’t it? The fog is still covering, thick and tensile, dusting my skin with leftover starlight. This is what happens when the romantic lifts up from the dreams and suffers into the daytime.

Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, writing is. Sometimes it’s worse than that. Sometimes you can’t get to the writing at all. Sometimes you sit down with the pen and notebook and what comes instead is blank, is empty, is forget, is nothing. Sometimes when you open the laptop all you can allow to be available is reruns of old tv shows on YouTube because social media isn’t a place, really, that you should be anymore, so you don’t go there to write — social media isn’t a place anyone should be any more, in your opinion — but certainly the thing you aren’t doing, the thing you can’t do, is opening up a new blank window and letting words come. Is what used to be called writing. You aren’t doing that anymore, apparently.

Sometimes it’s like the pain has settled over your brain and you forget that you used to be called writer. Sometime there are too many months of all the other worries — the family worries, the money worries — that take up all the space in the necessary brain, whose tendrils encroach into the creative brain and you are stuck making hamburgers over the stove or roasting gravensteins or asking over your shoulder why you shouldn’t just spend your nights reading Calvin and Hobbes once more time for old times’ sake.

Maybe you are back to keeping other people’s secrets and you are hard and heavy with them. Maybe you are again negotiating within yourself what’s all right to say, what’s not. Sometimes there’s so much else to do, and the words won’t come anyway, so you just put then pen down and pick up the sponge the spatula the car keys the people-tempering-smile and try and forget about writing for one more day.

You are forge and temper and loss and grief. You are old sorrow, and you remember — oh yes, writing doesn’t undo old sorrow. Writing doesn’t save me. Writing doesn’t take away the people who say yes to the men who rape and pillage. Was there some little-girl part of you (by which I mean idealistic hopeful wanting part of you) that thought it could, that thought the words could make a big difference like that?

You think, oh fuck, one more story about the guy getting away with rape (or murder or…), and you are overwhelmed with the old feelings and you think, just let the dust settle here and I can get back to writing, but then you wake up the next day and the same thing has happened again. Another man, another rape or murder, this is the country, the planet, the people we live in. You understand that you can’t just let the triggers settle and ease back before you write again because you are apparently living once again in a state of ever-present triggeredness and rage.

So you put the pen down. You don’t miss it for awhile. You don’t remember ever going to long without writing, without feeling the daily need to write, that thick hunger in your belly, that ache in your shoulders, that thing in you that needs to speak to something, somewhere, even if just to the blank and empty page. Maybe the urge is shifting, clouding. Maybe it’s just grieving. Maybe it’s lost and confused and so disappointed it doesn’t have words to speak about it anymore.

Maybe it is back in the old remembering, twenty-five years ago, when you sat in a bare and dirty room in a farm house in New Hampshire on the phone with a mother who said to you, Yes, I know he is doing those things to you, what else did you want to tell me? And you remember the first time a mother said that the rapist was worth more than you, than your heart and needs, than your well-being and life.

What I want to say is that you remember the first time you were stung silent with grief and loss, when words didn’t just not respond. They weren’t there at all. When there were no words for how awful a thing was, when there were no words for all that you’d lost, all that you’d have to shed in order to keep on living. The difference was, that time, you didn’t know how important writing was going to be to that keeping alive of you. You had ahead of you all of that discovery.

This time, you have been writing for years. You know what it can do. And now you have learned another layer of what it can’t. All the writing in journals and blogs and newspapers and newscasts and letters and fingertip scars and on bus stop walls and along the undersides of thighs and bellies can’t make the people you love unchoose the man who would take off your skin and slice the insides of you up for his entertainment. Can’t make the people of your country, your community, your home love, unchoose a violent, raping, stupid, dickless wonder of a troll who is ‘leading’ our country right into the toilet, supported, it seems, by all the rest of our country’s so-called governing bodies. And it can’t make people recognize a rapist when more than 50 women come forward to tell us he is one. And it can’t make people demand accountability from a police system so steeped in racism that we can (and do) literally watch officers murdering citizens in cold blood, over and over and over, and still not find them guilty of crimes against individual humans and humanity as a whole.

There are still those among my people who will say rape is not a  thing, racism is not a thing. There are serious discussions on the radio: Is it too late, in graduate school, to be teaching male students not to sexually harass or assault women when they get out into the real world of business, tech, work, whatever? And I yell at the radio, Do you honestly think they need another sexual harassment training? When the whole world around them is situated to favor their penis over all else? There are still those who are asking, do I really have to stop liking the art/books/movies/comedy/apps of the men who have raped or beaten women? There are still women asking those questions.

And so this is what happens when you sit down to write: All the anger, old and now, gets clogged in your throat, at the back of your brain. Along the single track that’s supposed to lead the thoughts from just-consciousness down into your fingers and onto the page, well, that track gets snarled in a wreck of everything that wants out right now right now right now. Everything is insistent. You don’t matter if you aren’t responding to this exact moment.

You watch others respond more effectively. There are others who seem somehow capable of engaging in this larger cultural conversation through their writing and words, who aren’t getting snarled in the old loss, who can articulate their feelings without it tangling into the branches of yesterday’s trauma inside your chest and heart. You try not to hate yourself for not being like them, for not being able to do what they can do.

You remember what you used to say: just write it, and you will feel better. But now you know that once you write it down, you’ll walk back out into the world and there will still be neighbors of Arab-descent, of Mexican- and Latin-American-descent, who are afraid for their lives, their children’s lives, their family’s lives. You’ll walk back out into a world in which men can say they think women like to be harassed. In which men young and old, who have been raised in a culture which is talking continually about the rights of women, can still turn over a drunk friend and press their penis into her body and think they did something right that day.

So this is the next layer of learning, the next phase of write anyway. Write anyway. It won’t fix anything out there. It won’t make the rapist-in-chief unchosen. It won’t make the rapists-in-entertainment somehow less powerful or less rich or less acceptable to a society that seems to value celebrity and shitty behavior over all else.

But this is what your writing, your having written, will do: it will remind you of the yes in your own heart and hands. It will be one more plaice you found to say no to the insistent demands of violence and terror. It will be one more time you told that young one in you, we can choose to do something different. It will be a telling the truth in a place that could accept that truth, your complicated and beautiful and real truth, without apology, without fear, without shame.

Write anyway. And thank you every day for every one of your hard-won words.

all the girls were Princess Leia

Good morning good morning. I woke up this morning to a dark orange shard pushing up over the Oakland hills, announcing the arrival of the sun. Out front of the house, in the lucky garden, one of the nasturtium plants has opened a single, sunrise-colored flower. Welcome to May – what beauty have you seen already today?

Those Santa Ana winds knocked me out yesterday (do we call them Santa Anas up here in Northern California, or is that just a SoCal thing?) — I spent most of the day laid out on the couch, watching movies and resting. It’s as if those strong, hot winds just reached inside my bones, took all my energy away, and replaced it with feverishness and ache. Today I’m feeling better (though still taking things slow), grateful for slightly cooler weather, and am thinking about remembering.

Yesterday I watched a number of movies — Crooklyn, Ordinary People, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Red Hook Summer — while I was crashed out on the couch. Three were period movies — set in the 60s, 70s, and 80s — and the last is meant to be present day Red Hook, in Brooklyn. Miraculously, only one of these films showed any sexual violence, and it was the last one I might have expected. (I’m going to have to write more about Red Hook Summer in another post.)

What do I want to say about these movies? They had me thinking about family and connectedness and struggle — about what story would I tell about my sister and I back in the 70s, about our life with our friends in the country between Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, in 1975, 76, 77. What would I tell about our clothes, our haircuts, the shoes we wore, about the David (or was it Shawn?) Cassidy posters on our friends’ walls? How would I show my mother — not working outside the home, lodged in a newly-built salt-box country house, raising a garden and two girls, trying on vegetarianism in the land of cattle farmers and beef, making roadtrips into the city to visit the natural foods store, where we got samples of kefir from the shopkeeper who looked like Mr. Hooper. Could I give you her berkenstock sandals, her tall boots with the square heels, her bell bottoms and her halter tops? Could I give you her hair folded up into a bun like the drawings of the women in the Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook, and, later, her hair in a short bob that she curled under at the bottom? Could I give you how we ran around through the open space of one another’s back yards, the lack of fences, the way the wheat fields towered over us in the summertime? Could I give all of that back to myself? We raced, played tag, played with the neighbor’s much coveted slip-n-slide; my mom picked mint from the patch at the side door for her sun tea. We made snow angels in the wintertime and wore fat red children’s skis to slide over the little hill down into the drainage ditch.

All of this lives in the story of Before. I could call it a story that needs resurrecting, but I am beginning to wonder if it’s actually dead. Sometimes we can put something down for years, decades, and think that it has died, when in fact it’s simply living quietly in the lining of your breath, in your cells, never abandoned you, never died away.

The story of Before stretches until 1982 — that’s when I met my stepfather. Everything else is After.

But Before still matters; it still exists, it still lives, still is part of my infrastructure. Monarch butterflies in the roadside sunflowers. Splashing in the blow-up pool on the patio out the sliding-glass back door. Churning vanilla ice cream in the wooden bucket filled with ice and rock salt. Smells of charcoal and lighter fluid. Body achy after a day running in the sun. Hide and seek. Fingers and tongue turned purple with dye from mulberries. Exquisite boredom. My parents’ deep silences that infuse around every memory. They put me on a bus one day in 1977 and then I was off to the Waverly Elementary School. On the bus, the driver played top-40 songs on the radio, and we kindergartners played doctor in the way back of the bus on the way home at midday. We stared out the windows at the long stretches of barely-undulant farmland, at the long trains railroading alongside us; we put our arms out the half-windows and tried to the the long-haul truckers to blow their airhorns for us. The bus smelled like cleaning fluid and those new leather seats.

I don’t remember getting home from school. I don’t remember family dinners. I don’t remember birthdays or Christmases. I remember one weeknight getting to stay up late to watch the Wizard of Oz on network television —we ate pancakes in our pajamas, at suppertime! All of us were there, all four in this family of quiet, sitting on shag carpet and the rough couch. The tv was a little box with rabbit-ear antennas. We changed the channel with the knob. We were in heaven, weren’t we, my sister and I? Didn’t we know we had everything? Didn’t my parents know that we had everything? On the playground at recess the kids played Star Wars — all the girls were Princess Leia. We spun and spun on the old metal merry-go-round, holding fast to the bars, pretending we were careening through space on the Millennium Falcon. My mother took me to see the movie when I was five — I don’t remember. She tells the story now with laughter, evident pleasure in the memory, how inappropriate it was for a five year old, how I shouted out, didn’t understand, asked her to explain what was happening, hid from Darth Vader.

Later, in the After, I didn’t ask her to explain, and there turned out to be no place to hide from the villain. The bad man got into everywhere. And even so — even still — he did not mange to uproot all of the Before from my bones. I just put it away for safekeeping, protection. I re-meet Before when I knead whole-wheat bread like my mother did, or push the lawnmower like my father did, or dust garden soil from my knees like my mother did, or run hard up city neighborhood sidewalks like that little girl did — hair streaming behind her, arms open to morning, the dust of butterfly wings and buttercups beneath her chin.

 

her garden is my best hope

Good morning, you gorgeousness out there. It’s all sun and cool breeze and spring open outside the window, almost warm enough to take the notebook out write directly into morning. My mother writes a couple of days ago to tell me that it snowed back home in Nebraska — in May. It’s just not right. I look out at my garden while we’re texting back and forth, I think of the lettuces, the spinach and broccoli and herbs that we’re already harvesting; I think of the tiny green tomato taking shape on the vine. I remember how devastating it used to be, when I was living in Maine, when the crocus were well blooming and the redbuds had taken firm hold on the maples and I’d begun to trust that finally, finally, spring had arrived — my bones could relax. And then, boom, more snow.

I don’t tell my mom that I spent her snow day out in the sun. She has only just begun to set out her garden — has the potatoes in, is turning over the wintered soil to prepare the space for her many tomato plants, the okra and eggplant, all the annual flowers. Her garden is my best hope. It’s from my mother’s gardening that I learned about the longevity of faith, about persistence of effort, about doing it anyway. She kept a garden all the way through until the very end of the time with her abusive second partner; through all his control and rabid mania, through his sobbing manipulations, through the spending that forced her to work more and more hours trying to reconcile the books and accounts that he refused to be responsible for, through the hostility and hatefulness that he forced her to refer to as love, through all the behind-closed-doors horror that she has never described to me,  she found time to hold on to her connection to the earth, to find solace in a thumb so green she could lift life from a toxic wasteland (which, it turned out, she would have to learn to do).

I don’t know how late into that marriage she kept her garden. I don’t know if her tomatoes were putting out fruit when he was arrested for incest and child sexual abuse, and she was arrested alongside him as an accessory after the fact. I don’t remember, just now, what time of year it was, and I’d been away from home for a few years: he may have driven her away from her garden, the way he’d driven her from cooking and baking and writing, the deep loam of her creative life.

I don’t know what it meant to her that he was not arrested or charged or held to any account for what he did to her.

What I know is that my mother gardens now. After many years rebuilding herself — sharing home with others, cocooning in an old Omaha red-brick apartment building, over a Czech restaurant — she offers her words into the world again, she bakes bread for every family gathering, and she has her own home with a garden she can shape any way she wishes. No one can tell her what to plant or not to plant, or where, or how. At any hour, during the spring and summer and fall, her neighbors find her there, in her sunhat and shorts, pulling weeds, tending to the herbs, talking to the skunk under the porch or the squirrels that want into her birdfeeder or the butterflies that find their way to her flowers — she has shaped her whole wide yard into garden.

And for all my disappointment and loss, for all that we struggle still to find a way to each other as honest and open mother and daughter in the aftermath of the betrayal that that man demanded of both of us, still when I go out into the gardens now I am following in her footsteps. I am listening her tell my much younger self how to set out the plants, how to water, how to tend. I am listening to her example: how she fingered the leaves, whispered to each new seedling, welcomed all the life that found its way into the soil she’d taken responsibility for. Later today, I’ll bake bread for a friend — and I will remember watching my young mother at the counter in a new house in the farmlands of Nebraska, how she put her whole body into her kneading and how, now that I am years older than she was then, and in spite of all that came between, I am still learning from her examples.

~~ ~~ ~~

I didn’t imagine I’d write about this when I set my timer for twenty minutes today. Do you have something surprising rising in you to write today? Give yourself fifteen minutes at least, take a coffee break and a notebook, head out to the breakroom or the back of your building, and drop into the words. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

I’m grateful, today, for the way you make room for what’s complicated about what and who you love.  I’m grateful for your spaciousness, and I’m grateful for your words.

the pieces we can’t forget

9/11 graffiti -- the words, in all bold caps, Never ForgetHere is a morning blog for Tuesday, September 11 — this will be the big question today: Do you remember where you were when you first learned that airplanes were flying into the twin towers, the world trade center in New York City? I was on a rural route in Maine, driving in to Portland, headed to the Borders where I did an enormous amount of my writing during the years I lived there. At the time my then-partner A. was pregnant and I was a new grad student, had only just begun my MA program — I had come back from my first residency immersed in a crush, in love with what I was beginning, terrified about us having a baby, so scared that I would lose myself and any possibility of actually doing the work I was meant to do in the world… Continue reading