Sense of Direction

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I have a lousy sense of direction.  So lousy that, when I look at a map my instincts urge me hard go the opposite way of what the map right in front of me says; so lousy that if I stay in a hotel for a week, I will walk out of my room and go the wrong way to the elevator every single day; so lousy that when I used to travel every week for work, my mother (totally justified) worried like crazy; so lousy that I once went hiking with a friend and our dogs in deep new snow and our one hour turned into three-plus because both of us thought the other was paying attention and all of the markers were buried in a sea of white.

If I’m in the city and park in a garage, I have to look behind me several times as I’m leaving the car to mark the landscape for later, for when I’m coming back.  Look for this, I think, and this …  I once lost my car in the Minneapolis airport garage:  did I park in green or gold or up or down?  It was ten o’clock at night and I could not, for the life of me, remember a single point of reference, and I was so embarrassed and so exhausted that I finally hauled my luggage back inside and down to the rental car counter and rented a car, drove home, and came back the next morning to drive around the entire garage to find my car.  And wow, there it was, right where I left it.

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All that said, getting lost and being lost is something I’m used to.  Getting lost rarely bothers me.  I don’t panic much.  I don’t get mad.  I stop to get my bearings and try a new course.  And if the new course doesn’t work out I stop, recalculate, and try again.  And again.  As fun as this is *not*, I realize this is what I have to work with, and so I work with it.  I surrender.

Writing on the sprawling blank page is so much like this, isn’t it?

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This morning I loaded up the dog and went for a hike in an unfamiliar wilderness preserve.  I pulled up the online map and studied it, then saved it to my phone.  It turns out the preserve is relatively small, and on this gorgeous Sunday in October there were hikers and dog walkers and bicyclists and even horseback riders.  Not enough to feel crowded, but enough that I wasn’t worried about getting a little lost.  Which, of course, I did.  For about a half hour.

Many people passed as I checked and rechecked and triple checked my map.  But I didn’t ask for their help.  I wanted to do this myself.  I knew I could if I kept at it.  I wanted to see if I could figure it out, if I could follow the the right signs, if I could focus hard enough on the winding trails to find my own way out and, of course, eventually I found the right trail and the parking lot and my car.

And doing so reminded me that even a girl with a lifelong lousy sense of direction can find her way.  She sure as hell can.

The Suit Makes the Mom

It started at Jones New York Country in Minneapolis.

It started at Jones New York Country, not for the fancy or the “in” or the style, but for the need:  I needed a uniform.  I needed a uniform and Jones New York Country, right up the road and not in a mall, it seemed then, had exactly what would fix me.

I’ve never been a shopper or even much interested in clothes or the latest fashion.  I wear jeans almost exclusively.  I am not familiar with an iron or ironing board.  I’m one of those girls whose girlfriends go shopping without her and have her meet them later.  For lunch.  For a cocktail.  For a party.  But shopping?  No.  Never.

styleblog 346And yet in the Winter of 1996, I’d barely turned 31 and all I could think about were clothes:  pleated, shapeless khakis and baggy sweaters and square jackets and silky scarves and big handbags that could carry ‘stuff’, and flat, sensible, blocky shoes.  Brown shoes.  I’d just gotten married and become a new mom, a full-time stepmother, to a 9 yr old boy and 15 yr old girl.  I saw myself in the skinny jeans I’d worn one night for a date with my soon-to-be husband — torn and frayed at one knee and torn even more in the back, right below my butt, and whoa.  Whoa hey!  Those jeans, dear lord, those jeans had to go; I could not dare to be seen in them in the carpool lane.  At (gasp!) a teacher conference.  At a sleepover drop-off.  Those jeans, my favorite old standbys, belonged to another life, another woman; those jeans had to go.

How often we try to dress ourselves for who we are not, for who we are expected to be.

When I remember my life in my 20s in corporate America, I think of ecru and off-black pantyhose and creamy silk blouses and fitted, knee-length skirts.  Of houndstooth and brass buttons.  Of how I felt like I belonged in that uniform — no matter how I sweated out my pits or sent runners up the hose — and how my uniform made me one of them, made me belong.  Made me sigh with, jesusHchrist, relief.

I see now what a hard time I had the year I became a wife and mother with — as ridiculous as it sounds — my clothes.  I look at photos of myself from that first year or two and think, who is that woman?

But I also remember how desperately I wanted to be accepted.  I wanted to be the mom, the real mom, taking pictures of my new daughter and her friends for her Homecoming Dance without comment from the other mothers.  I wanted to sit in the line of metal chairs and have a normal conference with my new son’s teacher (Mr. Moynihan, I recall) and have him like me, respect me, even though my son hated him.  I wanted to belong there, and for no one to notice.  I see now, of course, how unrealistic this was.  It was like being the new girl in school:  “who is she and what is she doing here?”  How desperately I craved this belonging, this blending in.

Thankfully, my kids helped and a few (very very few) of the parents helped, and I eased up.  When Spring came, I tossed my torn, skinny jeans into the Goodwill pile, but I didn’t need a total makeover or Jones New York Country, and it’s a good thing because the next time I showed up there, the store had closed.  Lack of business, lack of need.  The windows papered over.  Gone.  Waiting for the next big thing, the next big deal, the next fashion, the next not-me.

Jones New York Country no longer exists.  And neither does that version of me.

 

Five O’Clock

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I miss my mother most at five o’clock.

When I was a kid and came home after school, the TV was my babysitter — Gilligan’s Island at 3:30 followed by The Brady Bunch followed by The Partridge Family — until five o’clock came and it was time to do the few chores my mother had left for me (as fast as possible) before she got home.  I stayed with my grandparents in the summers.  My mother, if she was working the right shift, the good 7 to 3 shift, would sit for an hour or so at the kitchen table with my grandmother, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and gossiping, until we went home, just the 2 of us, around five.  As a teenager, I would dink around with friends after school, knowing I had to be home by five, that my mother would be waiting for me to help her with supper.  It was our time, our hour or two in the kitchen, just the two of us, before her new farmer husband came in from working in the field and the night became all about him.

I miss my mother most at five o’clock.

I remember being in my 20s, away from my hometown and working in cubicles and traveling all over the country.  Feeling successful, but untethered.  I called my mother at the end of most workdays.  Hey mom, what are you doing?  Nothing, what are you doing?  Going to grab some food, you?  Making supper.  When I got married, became a mom, and quit my job — all in about a 6 month span — I’d find myself in the kitchen alone around five, trying to figure out how to make a not-boring, edible dinner for my family of four.  Husband not home from work; kids doing homework or watching “The Simpsons”; and me pulling random items from the refrigerator.  I’d pour a glass of wine and call my mother.  Hey, mom, what are you doing?  Making supper.  Me, too, what are you making?  Chicken.  How are you making it?  Well … fried of course!  And we would laugh.

I miss my mother most at five o’clock.

In my mid-30s, I remember thinking that one good thing about having a sick mother was that she was always home, always there, to answer on the first ring.  I would start dinner, pour a glass of wine, and dial.  Hey mom, what are you doing?  Nothing, what are you doing?  Making dinner.  What are you making?  She was no longer able to cook, so she cooked vicariously through me.  Sometimes I lied and pretended I was making things I had no clue how to make — Chicken Cordon Bleu — to change up the conversation, to give us something else to talk about besides doctor appointments and inhalers and the shortening of time.  I’d even make up the ingredients, the steps, the ease of making something new; anything to distract us, to entertain.  All chicken, I would say, doesn’t need to be fried!  

I miss my mother most at five o’clock.

These days, when my husband and I decide we’re getting fat and it’s time to cut back, he will suggest skipping dinner.  Often I’ll agree:  what a great idea that is, we can just have a little snack, nothing big, you’re right.  But I never follow through.  I blame it on the clock.  On time.  It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer, daylight savings or dark by five, I pour my glass of wine and open the refrigerator door, ready to finish off the day the only way I know how.  It’s five o’clock.  What are you doing?  Making dinner. 

 

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Consuming

photoAbout a decade ago, I stopped reading — flipping through? mindlessly thumbing? — women’s magazines.

I tossed them on the coffee table in the always-growing slippery pile, with a blasé sigh.  The magazines did not make me want to buy pretty shoes and do a better job with my eyeliner; the magazines seemed a waste of my money and of my time (the 15 yr old girls, the makeup, the advice, the endless designer bags and belts and skirts and shoes) that just made me feel, well, bad.

Like I wasn’t doing anything enough or right enough.

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I do, however, get to wondering what the young girls are reading these days and that’s how I discovered this lovely article.  My niece is a freshman in college, and here’s what she listed as a must-read:  48 Things You Should Probably Thank Your Boyfriend For.  Among the gems on this list:

Telling you you’re pretty when you tell him to tell you you’re pretty.

And not giving a shit when you say you don’t feel like being touched.

Because he pays for you, whether that happens often or infrequently.  And because he’s beyond appreciative when you make a big deal and pay for him.

For being nice when your legs aren’t perfectly shaved all of the time. And acknowledging how soft they are when you actually take the time to prune and moisturize.

For having sex with you literally whenever or wherever you want.

For letting you pick which show to watch.

For calling you skinny.

And acting like you’re not insane when you say he’s being “too friendly.”

Opening jars when you’re “just far too weak.”

I recently read Roxane Gay’s essay collection, BAD FEMINIST which opens with:  “The cultural climate is shifting, particularly for women as we contend with the retrenchment of reproductive freedom, the persistence of rape culture, and the flawed if not damaging representations of women we’re consuming in music, movies, and literature.”  Reading the 48 Things above (with my head exploding) I kept thinking of one word in Roxane’s opening sentence: consuming.  The shiny women’s magazines we consume are a blip compared with lists like this.  And, if we are shifting, how very small the shift.

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Even at 49, I am not immune.  Last weekend while stuck at the Phoenix airport — right after a man kept questioning me about being a woman traveling alone with golf clubs and how unusual that was  I broke my own rule and bought More magazine.  $4.99 and 20 minutes of page-flipping.  I did, however, spend some valuable minutes on the main article: “New Beauty Rules at 30, 40, 50 & 60.”

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In Your 30s:  Perfect your application of concealer now and you’ll reap disguise benefits for the rest of your life.

(Translate:  Disguise will benefit you for the rest of your life.)

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In your 40s  (hey, woo hoo!, that’s still me for one year!):  Your skin seems drier or more sensitive, your hair is thinner and less lustrous, and a dab of lipstick and a swipe of mascara don’t do the face-brightening trick they once did.  Your new makeup mantra? Lighten up.

(Translate:  Lighten the fuck up.)

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In Your 50s:  Get your body back (above the neck).

(Translate: Because everything below the neck is a lost cause?)

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In Your 60s:  It’s wise to stay away from black [eyeliner], since the contrast makes too strong a statement.

(Translate:  Well now, you certainly wouldn’t want to make too strong a statement.)

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The Lake That Day

October 8, 2003.

What I remember most, eleven years on, is the lake that day.  How calm and still, how peaceful.  Your mother and I drove around the lake on our way to the park.  We were the only people there.  The leaves were spectacular gold and red and brown and pink, and it was hot.  So hot we wore sleeveless shirts, your mother and me, unheard of on a Minnesota October day.

Your mother and I sat on the dying grass in the middle of the park and tilted our faces to the sun.  We talked about you and Austin, our boys, so hard to believe you were juniors in high school and how fast you’d grown up and how funny you were and how, when you were ready to look at colleges in the Spring, maybe we would all pile in and go together and wouldn’t that be fun.  We laughed.

We made plans and we laughed.

I wonder, now, what you saw of the lake that day.  Was it calm and still, where you chose to disappear?  I went there with your mother the next day, in the evening, to the last place you decided to be on this earth, and we held hands and stared.  Just stared.  I remember the lake that day, too.  And I remember you.

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Because The Story is Never The Story

Going to the park!A few years ago, I had to put my 4 year old Australian shepherd to sleep.

Lucy was not sick.  In fact, Lucy was robust and full of life. Until she bit someone. Attacked them, actually. All was well until it wasn’t. And then it was an emergency. One of those emergencies with a decision you have to make that you never think you’ll have to make until you’re making it.

Shortly after it all happened, I remember trying to write the story of Lucy, the story of what the hell happened. I rescued her. I tried to train her. I put her to sleep. I was devastated. But “so what?” I kept saying this to myself. So what. What, whatwhatwhatwhatwhat, was the story?

I recently listened to this short talk by Ann Hood about what makes a kick-ass essay. (I’ve now listened to it about ten times) I’ve decided she’s not just talking about writing essays. You could apply Ann’s advice to your fiction, to your poetry, to the fight you just had with your best friend, to pretty much anything where you need to dig, where you need to figure out how and why this all happened. Are you asking the hardest question … of yourself? Are you writing like you’re an orphan, like you don’t care what anyone thinks? Are you writing the hardest sentence you’ve ever had to write?

I finally figured out the Lucy story, but it took a really really really long time. A long time to think about, and a long time to write. I’m glad I dug in, that I waited it out, because Lucy’s story — which is really my story — will appear in the Tahoma Literary Review’s next issue.

If you have not discovered this wonderful journal who pays writers (yes, I said PAYS), here’s my favorite piece from their last issue: Gratitude Journal, by Leslie Pietrzyk.  It’s hilarious and heartbreaking, and you HAVE TO READ IT.

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Now.  Tell me about a special dog (or cat) in your life who is not longer here, and why.

Dust

pb-111009-guns-cannon.photoblog730It’s been almost 2 years since I wrote this post about guns.  In the first paragraph, though I was not writing specifically about the National Football League, I wrote this sentence:  Let’s talk about the NFL and guns. Two days later, Sandy Hook happened. The nation was outraged, screaming Something has to change!  And yet, when was the last time you heard anything about Sandy Hook?  Or gun control?  Or guns at all?

It’s been just one month since the full Ray Rice video came to light.  We were all so outraged, screaming Something has to change! And yet, when was the last time you heard the words Ray Rice? We are no longer even having the conversation. I see now that Roger Goodell was brilliant when he insisted that changes, important changes to league policy (whatever the that means), would be in place by … the Super Bowl. I’m imagining Roger lounging by the fire with his wife and daughters over the upcoming holidays, drinking some eggnog and making a toast, because 4 months, or even 4 minutes, from now our collective outrage will have collapsed in on itself and become dust.

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I read this essay by Carvell Wallace about Ferguson wherein he says, in part: And that’s the odd thing about life in 2014. We witness terrible things from comfortable places. Right now I’m drinking coffee out of a mug that says “dance like no one is watching” There is a fruit bowl with a pomegranate and two limes. And three mason jars filled with flowers that my kids picked for me and rosemary I bought from the organic grocery. That is where I’m sitting when I watch a man get shot.

There was another school shooting this morning.  (okay, make that 2 school shootings)

NFL Football topped all cable TV ratings last week.  They’re busy counting $$$$$$$$$$$$$.

The police chief in Ferguson, Missouri still has his job.

I think of my beautiful and beaten grandmother who, 60 years ago and 50 years ago and 40 years ago and 30 years ago, had no support and no resources and did not leave. I think of Janay Rice, of her limp unconscious body on the floor of that elevator; of Janay Rice who, this very day, has so many resources and does not leave.

Sometimes I think the reason we most want these women to leave is not to save themselves, but to save us from having to spend our days, our minutes, even thinking about them. These women know something we do not: they know, have always known, that we will move on, that we have already moved on, and all that’s left is dust.