The Stone

I’ve been writing recently about a broken stone. It started like this: Her stone sits closest to the road. Not on the main but on the curved inner path, curved like the profile of her hip, green on black on green in the posed Polaroid, a fixed outline, so many selves ago. I only come here in Summer, the ground around pungent with grass cut fresh in perfection around gray granite too heavy for the soil to hold, and yet holds it anyway, holds the weight of the stone and of her and of me and of the sky so hard and blue and not, not ever, far enough away to keep from smothering us.

photoThere’s this other stone. Long forgotten until I wrote that paragraph. I’d flown home to Missouri and rented my standard white Thrifty car in the off-airport lot, and after a 2 hour slog down I-55, Aunt Mary was the first person I aimed to see. But first I made a stop. Aunt Mary had a love for all things red – red satin sheets, red curtains with pictures of Elvis, red drinking glasses, red candles, redredred – I ducked into the town florist and asked them put together some long-stemmed roses. While waiting for my bouquet, I spotted the stone; one of those memory things, brownish-gray and oval in shape, smooth and solid, enough heft to make it feel so good in my hand that I could not, would not, put it down; the word ‘mom’ etched in black. $19.95.

I’m thinking about the opening scene in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Virginia reaches the embankment, climbs over and down again to the river. There’s a fisherman upriver, far away, he won’t notice her, will he? She begins searching for a stone. She works quickly but methodically, as if she were following a recipe that must be obeyed scrupulously if it’s to succeed at all. She selects one roughly the size and shape of a pig’s skull. Even as she lifts it and forces it into one of the pockets of her coat, she can’t help noticing the stone’s cold chalkiness and it’s color, a milky brown with spots of green.

Back in my rental car and heading to Aunt Mary’s, I set the stone in the round cup holder next to the gearshift. Where it stayed.

Damned stone. I drove the stone around for a week. Sometimes I rubbed the contours of its etched word up and down I-55. Sometimes I turned the stone over so I could not see the word and then felt guilty and turned it back. Sometimes I picked up the stone and cradled it, with all its smooth perfect heft, in my lap because it felt good to be weighted down in a town where I no longer feel the familiar welcome weight, the tether, of my mother. One day I drove downtown to the river and carried the stone down the embankment, and as much as I wanted to hurl the hell out of that stone into the murky brown Mississippi River I could not bear to let it go. I put the stone back in the cup holder. I kept driving.

I kept driving until I shot my white rental car all the way back up I-55 to the off-airport Thrifty parking lot and as I dragged my black bags through the parking lot to the shuttle bus I tossed the stone I was so very tired of carrying, of looking at, of touching, of holding in my lap, into a trash can. I heard the crash of broken glass. The stone I can never get back.

When my mother’s cold stone becomes too much, even with this heat, I pull myself all the way down on the ground until I’m lying on top of her, the length of her. I measure myself, my body, against her and wonder what will happen if I sprawl my arms and legs wide, if I will lessen my weight enough to float up a bit. But no. There is no lifting. There are only the sun’s rays hitting the pits of my arms and the insides of my elbows and the cold insides of my thighs and my hips. I pull my t-shirt up to the bottom of my bra and lie there until I can’t take the sun anymore. I sit up. An elderly man stops his car, rolls down his window, asks if I’m okay. I wonder how long he’s been watching. How long she’s been gone. The counting, the never-ending counting. The weight of her.

The Circuit Breaker

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We have two bathrooms.  If my daughter is here, we can’t blow-dry our hair at the same time.  If we do, the circuit blows.  We didn’t know this about the house when we bought it 8 years ago, so the first time it happened and the dryer stopped working and lights went out, there was confusion, there was looking around to see what in the world just happened and did I cause it to happen and, most importantly, can I fix it?  Because every woman knows that if you leave your hair half-dried it feels for the rest of the day like a bigger disaster than it probably is.

I just spent a week in the desert.  I just spent a week so far out in the middle of the desert that when a friend saw this photograph she said, Where in the  world are you? and the immediate answer than came to mind was, not in this world.  Because that’s exactly what it felt like.  Like I’d left the planet I’m so used to living on, the one where I have all my routines and habits and excuses and comforts, the one where I don’t even have to devise a hundred ways to ahem avoid working on my book because they’re all right there, waiting.  Especially the excuses.

A week ago I took one carry-on bag and left my planet.  I rented a house with 4 other writers and the house was so far from civilization that the last roads were barely marked and consisted of nothing but hard-pack sand and dirt and were not listed on Google Maps, though that wouldn’t have mattered because there was no cell phone service for miles to access said Maps.  For the first 24 hours, I felt like I did the first time the blowdryers blew the circuit at my house.  Stunned.  Confused.  Wandering around.  Wondering if I could fix it.

IMG_1836The first day, I opened the refrigerator a lot (speaking of habits), but someone else had stocked it so not much was familiar; there was no laundry needing to be done and no dogs to walk; there were no errands to run or bills to pay; no repairmen to schedule or meet; no dinner to make except for the one night when it was my turn to make dinner.  There wasn’t even a TV to waste hours upon hours watching, though we did manage (after about an hour of how many writers does it take to figure out the satellite tv remote?) to turn on this little thing for the Superbowl only to realize that none of us have eyes young enough to see anything that small anymore, and so with the exception of a few big plays, during which we ran up quick and squinted for the replay, I can’t say we watched it.

Our days were filled with silence.  Everyone off in their own corner, writing, working, thinking.  Come five o’clock we put away our work and came together and played music and sang old songs by The Eagles  — On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air — and America — I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain — while one person made dinner.  Nights, we gathered around the fire that only Averil could make and read our work out loud and got feedback and listened to smart people brainstorm advice for where we were stuck.  We drank our share of coffee.  There were gin and tonics.  One night we finally went to bed at 2:45 a.m., and yet we were all up by 7 the next morning, back to work.

I went for a walk or a run everyday, but I didn’t go far for fear I’d get lost.  The one time I went off-road (hahaha, I say that like there were real roads) I got turned around while going up some big rocks and had to backtrack to find my way home.

It was weird to walk that many days without holding a leash.

It was especially weird to have no dogs to talk my nonsense to.  Hey there JoJo Bird, hows my big girl, ‘d you love your mama, do you wanna go on in the car, Magee Magoo Maguff, how’s my mama Lea, where’s my Handsome man, there he is, soooo Handsome ….

I received voicemail notifications on my phone that I could not access, and so I had (a) no idea who had called, and (b) no idea if it was important.  For days.

I did not read a single book.

Up the hill just beyond the house was a giant outcropping of elephant rocks. When I felt stuck or needed a break, I put on a big straw hat and climbed the rocks and laid down on my favorite rock in the full sun.

Only once the whole week did I have to put on a bra or wear something other than sweatpants.

At night, there were more stars than I’ve ever seen in one place.

We had one full moon.

I completely rewrote the 3 chapters I’ve been avoiding for months and months because I had no idea what I was trying to say, and it’s particularly funny because now I love those chapters and one of them makes me cry.

Here’s to going off the grid, to one week in the desert of another planet with unmarked roads and no cell phone service.  Here’s to not needing to “like” everything or even see everything.  Here’s to breaking the circuit.

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If Memory is a Palace

memory palaceAs I shut down for a solid week of writing, this is one of the books I’m taking with me into the cave. Here’s to memory.

From the last paragraph of THE MEMORY PALACE: If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in that place between sleep and morning. Place and palace, one letter separates the two. Morning. Do you ever say the word morning and mind-wander to other words? Maybe more or mourning instead, maybe more mourning? If memory is a palace, Bartok says.

I fan the pages and search for sentences I’ve marked. On page 29 I find, our brains are built not to fix memories in stone but rather to transform them. Our recollections change in their retelling. And then, [memory is] a subterranean world that changes each time we drag something up from below.

For those of us working on memoirs — or writing fiction based on the real thing — overthinking our memories and how they work and why they hold onto this and not that, and wondering what if we’re right?, what if we’re wrong?, is constant. Some days it feels like mining, deep in the black dark underground where you can’t see your surroundings or even how deep down you are (3 ft? 3 miles?), not sure of what you’ll uncover. Some days it feels like you’re chasing a red balloon that’s floating away and running running running desperately after it, trying to grab the waving string before it escapes, forever out of reach.

Mira Bartok is a genius, and I don’t throw around the “g” word casually. For someone with a traumatic brain injury, she’s jumps to uber-genius status, if such a thing exists. Is it perfect? Whose life is? The story bogs down in so much artful history and detail and letters written by the schizophrenic mother, but in many ways this seems purposeful. The writer has buried herself in another life, a historical and artistic (and make-believe?) life — how else does a woman survive a mother she both loves unconditionally and fears so much she has to change her name and disconnect for 17 years to survive her?

I finally (a year overdue) cleaned out my closet. I threw away a brown flannel shirt I’ve loved for 15 years. It hurt. A button was broken and I couldn’t bear to fix it, though it’s been broken for a decade. I went to the eye doctor to have my reading glasses adjusted and the clerk gave me a lecture about how I shouldn’t push my glasses up on my head to hold back my hair, it stretches them out. I’ve sucked down an unwelcome Springtime cold and have hardly left the house in a week. My nasal-drip voice belongs to a man I don’t recognize. I am asleep and/or drugged by 9; awake and up by 4. I’m reading more than usual. There was story today about the 20th anniversary of “Thelma and Louise”. I see those girls in the dust, driving off that cliff. I bought a $6.10 tomato —- a tomato so fragrant and yellow/red and perfect I’m afraid to eat it, a tomato so big it barely fits in my hand. I had an ice cream sandwich for lunch. Okay, I had 2. For dinner, tater tots. Food for a kid. Tater tots remind me of one of my mother’s favorite recipes, Hash Brown Casserole. The Hash Brown Casserole recipe is handwritten in one of the last cards my mother ever sent me. On the cover, a watercolor scene of a seashore, a lighthouse. Scenes my mother never witnessed. Pale blues and yellows. Rocks on the sand. Inside I find her recipe, where she uses shorthand she’s knows I’ll understand, followed with: Hope you enjoy this as much as we did. Love, Mom. Morning, or mourning.  That little girl on the cover of Bartok’s book might be me.

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This post originally appeared in 2011, and I received this note.  I share it here because it reminds me of the kindness and generosity of writers.

Dear Teri (and readers of this blog):

Someone just sent me your page and I’m so glad they did! What a lovely review of my book. I’m so happy that it moved you (and others) in some way. I thought you might like to know that the shelter my mom lived in has now been rebuilt and renamed in her honor (The Norma Herr Women’s Center). I have also found my mom’s best friend (and the friend’s younger sister) from childhood. They knew my mom before she became so ill. AND they own my mom’s first piano that she learned to play on. I try to post these kinds of updates on my http://www.memorypalace.com site when I can. You all might also be interested in my blog for writers and artists, if you are trying to find funding and residencies for what you do…just google Mira’s List and you’ll find it right away.
Thanks for your support. I just got some hate mail this week so your words really cheered me up!
Best wishes,
Mira (Bartok)

The Bowl

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With the Superbowl looming, I thought I’d leave the overinflated Deflate-gate behind and read something more interesting about, yes, football.  I was listening to the latest Dear Sugar Radio where Cheryl and Steve shared criticism they’ve gotten after publishing their respective books.  Apparently if you’re a woman writing about walking alone in the wilderness, you get “You should have been tied to a tree and raped on your Pacific Crest Trail hike” and if you’re a man trying to puzzle out what you love and loathe about football in America, you get hate mail accusing you of being “a big pussy.”

Given my issues with football — Ray Rice, Ray McDonald, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Adrian Peterson, Roger Goodell, Jameis Winston, and the list goes ridiculously on — it will come as no surprise that I’m reading this book where a lifelong football fan wrestles with some of my own questions. What does it mean, as a kid, to be picked or not picked for ‘the team’?  How did a sport that causes brain damage become the leading signifier of our institutions of higher learning?  Does our addiction to football foster a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia?  The players are getting so huge, should there be a weight limit?  What is our expectation of the student-athlete who spends 40-60 hours a week playing, practicing, recovering, working out (only 45% of Division I football players graduate)?  Why do I have such mixed feelings about this sport?

On page 125 Almond writes:  “I don’t mean to be flippant.  I’m sure there are many college players who pursue their studies strenuously.  My point is that the system doesn’t require them to.  The notion that they’ve enrolled in college to learn more about the world of ideas is a fraud we all consent to so we can watch them compete on Saturday.  And it’s a fraud that degrades the essential educational system…  Which is why, when you hear the name of a large state school such as the University of Texas or Florida or Michigan you don’t think of a college at all.  You think of a football team.”

I hear Michigan and immediately think Go Blue!; Notre Dame puts the team fight song in my head; Ohio State and I wonder, as always, why the players say The Ohio State University.

Will you be watching the Superbowl this weekend?  

Twirl

b06e0402f942b97cbbd6b1ff527acdfeOnce upon a time, when I was in my 20s, I worked for a Big Financial Company – heretofore known as BFC – where I thought Wow, I’ve made it. I had an office with a door. They gave me a brand new car and paid for the insurance and the gas. They entrusted valued customers to my care, ones with famous names as big as my BFC, and gave me prizes. I thought they did all of this because I worked harder than they asked me to and because I always made my numbers and because I earned it. I thought they respected me.

Down Under in Australia, the first major tennis tournament of the year started this week. After winning her match, 20-something Eugenie Bouchard was being interviewed on court in front of thousands when the interviewer asked her to twirl. Bouchard stood there, stunned. Twirl? You know, twirl, like a little girl might twirl around her bedroom with her favorite doll or in her back yard when nobody’s watching or with her best little girlfriends or with her daddy around the living room. Twirl. Bouchard balked, but the interviewer asked again. And to cover the awkward silence of the spotlight shining hot on her, she twirled.

I watched her twirl and turned off the TV and went to bed thinking about my old job at BFC. One time I wore a brand new pantsuit I couldn’t really afford to a customer meeting. I gave a presentation in a boardroom full of old men in suits. My boss and my boss’s boss were there. After 2 long heart-pounding hours we were on our way to the elevator when my boss pulled me to the side. I thought he was going to tell me what a great job I did, that he was proud of me and my hard work; he said, Don’t fucking ever wear pants to a customer meeting again. I’m thinking about Eugenie Bouchard, a professional athlete, and how she worked and fought hard through her match, doing her best at her job, being asked to twirl. I’m thinking about the skirts, tight and short, that I always wore with my suit jackets, and how those skirts were expected. Of Bouchard twirling, her skirt spinning up and out. Of the time a famous customer of BFC told me how much he liked looking at my legs, and how, like Bouchard, I balked, and then just twirled.

In her post-match interview, Serena Williams, the #1 tennis player in the world, was asked about the Bouchard twirl. “I wouldn’t ask [the men] Rafa or Roger to twirl,” she said, and quickly added, “Life is far too short to focus on that. Whether I twirl or not, it’s not the end of the world.”

One time my boss’s boss’s boss pulled up a chair at the corner of my desk, while smoking a cigarette in our nonsmoking office, and said, If we promote you, you’re not going to go and get pregnant are you? I twirled. One time we were leaving a late business dinner and the big shot executive in town insisted I drive him to his hotel even though it was the opposite direction of my house. He had strong busy drunk hands. I twirled. Way more than one time I had to change hotel rooms because a bunch of us were on a business trip and the (mostly older and married) men would go out and get wasted and then hunt me down; so there I would be at one or two or three in the morning, sneaking down the back stairs to the front desk with my luggage and my brief case to beg the desk clerk, often a man, for a new room while trying to explain my “special needs”, all the while knowing the next morning my male counterparts and bosses would give me nine kinds of hell for “going missing.” I would twirl.

I twirled because Wow, I thought I’d made it. I twirled because the hot spotlight was on me at BFC, and I was only 20-something and afraid of losing my job and did not yet realize that life is short. I remember thinking, back then, that this was what I had to do.  I thought about how hard I worked and the prizes I’d won and the respect I thought I’d earned and how, if I lost all that, it would be the end of the world.

Where I Slept

 

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I’m staying at my son’s house and sleeping here, right here in this photo.  My son is all grown up and, for the first time, I am a houseguest in my son’s house.  Wow.  How did he grow up so fast and how did this happen!?!?

I recently came across a visceral and so very real 2009 essay — Stephen Elliott’s “Where I Slept” — and it’s got me thinking about my current sleeping situation and all of the places I’ve slept.  Or tried to sleep.  Or faked sleeping.  Or lay awake ALL night craving sleep.  Or slept alone or with a man or with a friend or on a friend’s couch or with my grandmother or with my dog.  The times I used to sleep with my mother when we only had one bed.  When I was really little I liked to sleep in small, confined spaces, like under the coffee table or in a corner behind a chair, and yet now I’m fearful in confined spaces.  There was my cat, Candy, who, when I was 12, birthed a litter of kittens on my bed while I slept.  The time when I was 21 and was between apartments and slept on piled blankets on a friend’s hardwood dining room floor and read Jackie Collins’s CHANCES and LUCKY in one weekend because I could not sleep and had just moved to a new town and felt lost.  Thank god for Jackie Collins.

Where we sleep can be so … fraught.

Stephen Elliott begins his essay:  My homeless year began early October 1985 and ended in the last day of August 1986. I was thirteen, and then fourteen, and it’s a story I’ve never told in part because I slept so many different places that year. I slept in the broom closet of a friend’s apartment building. The closet was just inside the entryway, past the eight slotted mailboxes. It was the size of a single bed, crowded with mop buckets and cleaning solutions, and I could stretch all the way out and my toes would just touch the door. The building itself was a tan/yellow brick four flat. Kwan lived with his parents and grandmother in a two-bedroom on the second floor, part of a wave of Korean immigrants arriving on the north side of Chicago in the early eighties on their way to the suburbs along with the Kurds and Russian Jews. When I would come over to visit after school his grandmother would clutch my head in her bony hands and pray for me.

Click here to read on (and you MUST read on because it’s fucking incredible).

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Tell me a story about where you’ve slept.

Sugar

Within the space of two weeks, I’ve gone from “what’s a podcast, and how do they work?” to listening to a podcast everyday.  I’m a gorger, have I mentioned that?  I started with Serial, the one everyone was talking about, and I’ve now subscribed to several.

My favorite?

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Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, a magical pair of personalities for radio, take their old Rumpus advice column “Dear Sugar” and give it their (literal) voices.  So far there’s just one full-length, hour-long episode, but I’m hooked.  I’ve listened to this episode 3 times now, and the soundbite that sticks with me today is from a 2011 Dear Sugar Column, about life choices.  Seek out a new job or stay put? write your book or not? have a baby or remain forever childless?  move to a new city or stay where you are?  rent forever (remain mobile) or buy (set down roots)?  The possibilities for our lives are endless, but we simply can’t live every life we imagine for ourselves; we have to make a choice, choose a path, and let that other life we might have lived go.  Here’s an excerpt from Cheryl’s 2011 column “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us”.

There’s a poem I love by Tomas Tranströmer called “The Blue House.” I think of it every time I ponder questions such as yours about the irrevocable choices we make. The poem is narrated by a man who is standing in the woods near his house. When he looks at his house from this vantage point, he observes that it’s “as if I had just died and was seeing the house from a new angle.” It’s a wonderful image—that man among the trees—and it’s an instructive one too. There is a transformative power in seeing the familiar from a new, more distant perspective. It’s in this stance that Tranströmer’s narrator is capable of seeing his life for what it is while also acknowledging the lives he might have had. “The sketches,” Tranströmer writes, “all of them, want to become real.” The poem strikes a chord in me because it’s so very sadly and joyfully and devastatingly true. Every life, Tranströmer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.

And so the question, sweet pea, is who do you intend to be.

Here’s to getting more Sugar.

 

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