Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dear Daddy

Dear Daddy,

It's raining today. It's been raining since last night, and it's supposed to rain through tomorrow. You'd hate it. Stuck in the house, unable to go play golf. It's cold too, but not so cold you need extra socks. My hair goes straight and stringy with all the humidity. It's a blessing though, this rain.

Right after you died, I used to imagine what it was like under the earth when it would rain. Did it feel like the womb again?

Your birthday came and went last week. You would have been 67. Instead, you've been dead 20 years. Everything that I have become, you never knew. Or maybe, I became it because you did know.

I sat in a coffee shop yesterday and watched Granite Creek bubble past the window. A tall amethyst crystal inhabits the window, catching the afternoon sun. I know the owner, and I knew two people who came and went during the three hours I was there. I love my town, Daddy. I can't say that I love Arizona. I can't say that I feel anything but barren when I see desert, but I do love my town.

I'm trying to write about our land now, Daddy. The land Melanie and I sold back to Catherine after Grandma died. I'm trying to write about it so I can show other people what it means to feel ripped from a place -- a very common state one can find oneself. I understand why you moved us out here, and I know you hoped that it would be better out here for you. I know it wasn't better for you, and it wasn't better for me, either. But here we both are -- you underground in a soggy cemetery in Glendale; me, above ground for today, on a soggy sheath of land in Prescott. I want you to know that at least I love my town.

I want you to know that I write because you saw the ghosts with me. I write because you told me I had to believe in them to see them and when I did that, you gave me a pen and told me to show you what I saw. And I did. I want so much today to sit with you in that coffee shop and talk to you about the ghosts you saw. What did you see floating over the iron-edged bed in the polio ward in 1948? What did you hear in the machines that ultimately stopped your life? What did you never talk about? Your ghosts are my ghosts, Daddy, and a conversation with you every now and then would be a welcome thing. I want to talk to you about this book I'm writing that is pulling me in a thousand directions, every direction ending up anchored back to the ghosts -- back to the presence of them, the absence of them, and the exorcism of them. Everything goes back to finding home.

I do love my town, Daddy, but it is not my home. Maybe we only get one of those in a lifetime. Maybe that search for the first womb is so strong that it drives novelists and musicians and scientists to keep seeking it out -- keep searching for the key to the door that created us. And maybe the whole point is that we never find it.

I know you were afraid I'd inherited your moodiness and your dissatisfaction with things as they are. I did. Both qualities make me write. I know you were afraid I attached to everything too much. I do. And though I'm getting better at detaching, it doesn't come so easily. I haven't detached from you yet, have I? And it's been 20 years.

I wonder what you would say about my books. You never saw any of them. I wonder what you would say about my job, about yoga (I can imagine what you'd say about yoga!), about Keith. I wonder if you'd be sad that I can't let go of the land we left, but I know because I watched your eyes when a golf tournament was played in North Carolina, and because I listened to your voice when you talked of Chapel Hill and of your buddies and the student union (it's gone now, you know -- at least the student union you knew) and "Stewball" on the jukebox that you couldn't let go of the land you left, even if you believed in why you left it.

The earth is slippery. We don't stake a claim on her; she claims us. There seems to be very little one can do about it. We drive into a place and we know in our cells if this earth will hold us or push us away. Phoenix pushed us both away. I'm sorry you're in that ground. I know there's a plot for you still at Masonboro Baptist Church's cemetery in the row of other Herrings -- -next to your mother, your father, your uncle, your cousins.

I'm writing about you now, in a way I haven't done before. What do you want me to say? What do you want me to leave out? I just looked through again a box of old photographs your sister sent to us after Grandmama died. From the time you were born until the very last picture in there, one of you and Mom out by Cave Creek in 1987 -- must have been just a few weeks before you died -- your eyes were haunted. They were haunted before the polio. Before the heart attack. Before. That's why you wrote. I'd sure like to talk to you about that. I'm going to have to make it up now. I'm going to have to make up my life so it can be truthful. I'm going to pretend you're sitting across the table, at the Wild Iris coffee shop, watching Granite Creek with me. I'm going to pretend you're holding the pen with me, just like I'm realizing I always do. I'm going to conjure you back so you can take me back to the places we left.

"I know this move was a mistake for you," you said to me one night after we went driving. "I know how much you miss North Carolina."

I couldn't speak. My throat closed every time we tried to talk in those last few years. I never wanted to cry with you because I was afraid I'd never stop. I was afraid you'd know you were dying, and that I knew it too, and then where would we be -- all our pretending that life in a flat, dry, hot town could make it better. Then where would we be?

"Everything changes, sugar. Not one thing is how it used to be, no matter how much you want it to be. Not one thing."

We parked in the driveway in front of the garage door. It was 9:00.

"People write stories so they can hang on to how it used to be. Or so they can figure out how it used to be. Or so they can make it better. When you know what you want your stories to be, you can write them. Just remember that everything changes. One day you're writing to hang on, the next day you're writing for some other reason. Let that be OK."

"It's so ugly here," I said. "It's so ugly."

"I'm dying here, Laraine," you said, looking decidedly away from me.

"I'm dying here too, Daddy."

"I'm sorry."

I pushed into your shoulder and sucked in air. One of the few moments of physical touch I can remember between us.I was 15 1/2. You were teaching me how to drive. I couldn't bear that you were unhappy too.

"Let's go back."

"We can't go back. Your mom has a job. Melanie is happy."

But of course, what I really meant was -- let's go back to before you got sick. Let's go back to the only eight years of my life I had a home. 1968-1976.

"I'm tired, Laraine."

And I knew. I knew you were done with the experimental drug treatments. Done with trying to get your golf game back. Done with finding God in the King James version. Done even with longing for home.

"So what do you think of Prescott, Daddy? It took me 20 years to get here."

"It's like Wilmington was. Long time ago."

"Yeah. It's not home though."

"I know." And you'll take my hand and we'll both hold the purple pen over the page. "You've got to go make it up now. That's as real as it ever was."

So I start today with...

The first voice I heard I was sure belonged to Jesus. I was only five years old and already preoccupied with whether or not Jesus wanted me for a sunbeam. I'd been praying for him to fill my open empty heart.

"Time to go to the sleepyhouse, Lanie,"


Jesus was African American after all! And he was a she -- something I instinctively knew I needed to keep quiet. She sounded like a grandmother, but not as creaky as my grandmother. And my name was Laraine, not Lanie, but Jesus had a lot of names to keep track of. It was understandable he'd get confused from time to time. I was going to be a sunbeam after all. The fiery pits of hell weren't going to close in on me. My heart was worthy of the sweet salve of salvation. I wasn't afraid at all. Not one bit.

Maybe I can meet you here again tomorrow, Daddy? The creek will be really pretty after all this rain.


Friday, January 25, 2008

On ghosts and voices

Annie Dillard, in THE WRITING LIFE, says, "A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all." I came across this passage while prepping for one of my spring classes. She goes on to say, "There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain..."

So, what do I think of? I think of my ghosts. I had a really good conversation on Wednesday with my editor. She is extremely practical, as I may have mentioned in earlier posts! One of the comments she made about my 100+ pages I'd sent her was that she didn't connect as much with the "supernatural" parts of the story. I can buy that. Not everyone is crazy. But I have also been searching for a way into this project.I am sick to death of rehashing dad's story and death over and over. The material feels not just done, but overcooked. I can't generate enthusiasm to work it through one more time because I've worked it through ... like 1000 times, and in another book already, and in two years of therapy, and then in two years of doing grief counseling for others, and then in... You get the picture.

The longer I write and teach writing, the less I know about it. I do think I know, at least today, that if a writer knows too much about the subject matter, the writing will self destruct. If the writer has a clear trajectory, then all she's doing is filling in the blanks. She's not exploring anymore -- either internally or externally. Over the past several years I've been putting together an essay collection called GHOST GATHERING. I haven't been able to really figure out what it is, but the thing that keeps pulling me back to it is the ghosts. Here's the concept from my original proposal:

Uncovering the Unseen Fingerprints of a Life

Ghost Gathering: Uncovering the Unseen Fingerprints of a Life is a book length collection of narrative creative non-fiction exploring the question of how the things we’ve hidden, the secrets we’ve kept, the relationships we haven’t chosen, and the things we have or have not said, shape the lives we have today. This book is for anyone who has wondered about why the unselected lives we all carry with us continue to haunt us, and how those lives both reinforce and dismantle the life we currently call our “real” one.

The life which is dying is existing right here now and is grateful. – Zen wisdom

Our lives contain glimpses in every room of paths we might have taken, a flash of hope for what could be or could have been, a recording of regrets that plays out over and over again – a skip in the DVD of our lives. How can we live with these multiple lives, multiple scenarios, and then claim we have only a single life? How many different ways do we gather the ghosts that shape our lives?

We are all formed by our secrets, hidden desires, sorrows and hopes. These intangibles make us human. We become three-dimensional only when we can recognize and integrate the things we keep in the shadows of our private minds. The residue of our discarded lives and untaken opportunities is part of the glue that holds us together and keeps us whole.

This collection of creative non-fiction studies the precarious relationship between our beliefs and the facts of our lives, the world of mystery and the world of realism, and examines the idea that the human condition cannot be explored in totality without acknowledging the dimensions of our existences that cannot be quantified, dissected, or assessed.

So, it seems to me that Between Skins is an extension of this concept. When I thought about my editor's comments, I kept coming back to, "But that's how I see the world!" And then, when I thought deeper, "That's why I became a writer." If I didn't hear the voices, if I didn't see the ghosts, I wouldn't be writing.

Keith gave me a title suggestion of: BODY OF WORK: Voices from a writer's life. Maybe GHOST GATHERING is the title for it. I don't know. I think of possession, obsession, concession -- the tricks of storytelling. I think of how much of my life falls in the unseen place, and how often I need to go there to do what I am put here to do. Then I think of how early I knew this to be true. I remember my first ghost. My first voice. So I think ... here's a way into a memoir. A writer's relationship with her ghosts. With her voices. How her characters have invaded her, befriended her, abandoned her, and how the relationships with those characters have shaped her "real" story. This is something I haven't explored in words yet, so there's juice. It's something I haven't rehashed a thousand times. It's something I would want to know about if I read a memoir of another writer. How does she live with writing? What does it do to her? What doesn't it do?

Talking with my editor made me realize how much artists see the world differently than others. I don't see any difference between a seen world and an unseen world. They're both here. All the time. It's always been that way for me. It's a reality check (ha!) to realize that most people don't think like that. Jennifer told me to write from a place of authenticity and send her more when I had more. Find the question of the book. Then write to find the answer. My father was one of my first voices and then he became one of my ghosts. But there are so many more. Some I see only once a year or so, waiting for their time to talk. One I've seen since before I could talk. I don't know what she's about. I wrote a little about her in BONE DANCE. Necahual, my bone woman, showed up there in an altered form.

What is my work?

There is more than lines and angles. There's a world of spirals, going up and going down. There's a world of pulsing energy. Each of us sees different parts of it. Keith sees some of it in the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon isn't one of my places. I see it in redwoods and water. If all of us not only looked at the world with soft eyes, but felt safe enough to share what they saw, what a picture of mama earth we'd have.

This way of seeing the world is what I have to share.It's the thing only I love. The thing that makes sense only to me. The thing that makes me ... me.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Authenticity and Marketability

It's sunny and cold here today. When I look outside my window and see sun, I realize I'm still conditioned to Phoenix, even after 4 years of being away from it. I expect sun to equal heat, and I'm always surprised when I step outside without a coat in January and have to step back inside to get one. I moved to Prescott to breathe. I moved here because I knew Phoenix would close me in its Venus flytrap jaws and I'd be unable to escape if I didn't move. I moved here because Phoenix closed me.

I am working on a memoir that is gutting me. I have too many well meaning people giving feedback. I am tainting my work with myself. I heard back from my editor at Shambhala last week. Bless her; she wants to publish another book. Bless her; she wants the next book she publishes of mine to sell as well as Writing Begins with the Breath. Bless her; she is trying to help me.

I didn't want to write a memoir. I am a fiction writer, no matter what the world of publishing keeps telling me. I write stories. My editor told me the thread of my book needs to be more elementary than it currently is. Once I find that, she says, the next questions are: what will the reader learn from the memoir? What is the universal appeal of the story? How is the story relevant to other readers?

Do we ask these questions of fiction? Do we distill the gifts a novel gives us into learning outcomes? Yes, I suppose, in some literature classes we do that. What has happened that we now must write to the outcome, rather than write for the experience? Are readers so unsophisticated now that they can't make meaning of the reading experience on their own? Must they have a common thread that can be bulleted on the back panel and touted in a magazine advertisement?

My editor felt many of the more "real" chapters I sent to her were much more compelling than the "supernatural" ones. This observation struck me hard. I realized that I do not distinguish between "real" and "supernatural". I realized I see and hear the ghosts around me, and from that place, I write. To remove the supernatural in favor of the real is impossible, for me. If I didn't have the ghosts, I wouldn't have any stories at all. So I thought about that as a way into the book. If I couldn't have my ghosts, I didn't want to say anything at all. How to convince the East Coast city publishing establishment that ghosts are here -- not just in the South; not just in the West; but in the gleaming metal skyscrapers of Boston too.

I became a writer, or should I say, I uncovered the truth that I am a writer, because I heard the ghosts talking when I was five. I heard them in my bedroom, and the only way to keep them from bugging me all night was to pick up a pencil and try to write down what they were saying. If I couldn't hear them, I would have nothing to say.

I am my first ghost. When I began writing my autobiography in kindergarten, I did it by closing my eyes and watching and listening to my little girl-self who had just spent the day making a macaroni tree for her mother for Christmas. I did it by stepping outside of myself to hear not just what I had already said, but what I had meant to say, and what I wished I had not said. I did it by listening underneath the spoken conversations to what hung in the air, sticky and wet. I did it by watching myself living in many different times and places simultaneously.

Everyone loves a ghost story, or so I thought. Maybe we only like them when we think they aren't "real". Maybe the notion of someone hearing characters as clearly as the whisper of a lover is a bit too much for mainstream America. But what else can you be if you walk here? If you stand between a world of dualism and a world of non-dualism? The writer writes from this place in between. The writer sees, not just what she did, but what she could do. The writer sees her sorrows in the pebbles of Granite Creek. She sees her rage in the crags of Thumb Butte, and her joys in the eyes of a scraggly orange cat. If a writer doesn't see this way, there's no writing, only reporting. If a writer's eyes can't soften to see beyond the world the textbooks tell us is real, then writing really will fall to the level of a commodity -- of a task to be done, or not done. Those of us who write from the soft place cry in the face of spreadsheets and earnings projections and sell-through numbers. Those of us who write from the soft space are reaching out to you, staring, groping for the "skill set" that will allow us to keep going, keep writing, keep sharing.

If we go away, if we stop writing from this place, if we stop hearing the ghosts, you will miss us, but you may not know what you have missed until we are too far gone for you to conjure us back. If you no longer let us show you our ghosts so you can touch your own, if only for the time it takes you to read 250 pages, you will find yourself dry and barren. You will find yourself lost, a ghost, hoping for an ear to hear you, a soft eye to see you. Hoping. Hoping.

Friday, January 18, 2008


The year my father died, I met and moved in with a man (N.). He was everything I'd always loathed, and because of circumstances, he morphed into everything I hoped would save me from feeling sadness. He remains the only other person I've lived with besides my parents. He remains the only other person to have seen perhaps who I really am, underneath the scarves and dyed hair and flouncy skirts.

I was new to sexuality. It was 1987 and I was 19. I was new even to dating, yet within two weeks of meeting N, I was dropping out of school and moving to Tucson with him to go to the U of A. It was exciting. I can't say that it wasn't, even now that I know what happened. To be shopping for a 'family' at the Smith's down the street. To be taking Sun Trans to the U of A campus every day like a grown up. To write checks out every month for rent, food, car insurance. It was exciting.

In the beginning, it was hot -- the kind of hot you see on the movies -- the kind of hot that comes from desperation to be absorbed into another. I was the thinnest I have ever been -- down to 98 pounds and a size 3. A woman like me becomes 98 pounds by eating M&M's and drinking water for six months. A woman like me can eat M&M's and drink water for six months because she no longer could hear her body's cry for food. Men looked at me in ways I'd never experienced. Everywhere I went, people looked. By then I was 20, my father was six months dead, I could wear a miniskirt (and it worked), I had an engagement ring on my finger, and I knew I would never, ever marry this man. I knew it when he asked and put the diamond on my finger (a ring I never in all my life thought I'd have) and when I said yes, I learned something -- yes means no. No means no. But yes means no even more.

But still. We had an apartment. We had cats and ferrets. I worked as a projectionist at the now vanished AMC El Con cinema. N was the second man I had been with, and the first man to take what I didn't know I could lose.

Last week, I went to see my teacher, Cain, for another chi nei tsang session. On Wednesday, I went back because I couldn't do my kettlebell training anymore. It felt too aggressive. Too mean. I wanted to strengthen my abs instead, curl into a ball, and breathe. My knees were hurting from doing squats with the 27 lb kettlebell. Really, they were hurting because I didn't have my knees lined up properly over my feet. And really, I didn't have my knees lined up over my feet because I just couldn't open my legs.

I hate this pose. It's called malasana ( which literally means pose of the impure. Mala means impurity. Asana means pose. Malasana is designed to facilitate healthy bowel elimination. But as anyone who's ever had body work knows, the physical poses are only one piece of the puzzle. I'm afraid to stand on my head, but I loathe malasana. Three years ago, I couldn't lower my heels to the ground. Then, I learned to overcompensate with my outer thighs so I could lower my heels, but the result was that my knees bend too far inward. I loathe it. Ironically, I try to pick malasana-moments in class to go to the bathroom.

Cain sat on the floor opposite me, his back up against the desk, while I did my best to crouch into malasana. He put his feet on my knees and began to press them apart. My inner thighs contracted. "That's fear," he whispered. And then I remembered one of many things N did to me while we were together. My body remembered it. "It's not your muscles keeping you from the pose," he said. "It's your heart." So I breathed and cried a little and breathed and leaned into Cain so I could stabilize. I remembered the time he threw the butcher knife across the room at me. The time he broke my cat, Apricot's, tail. The time he thought (of the zillion times) that I'd been out cheating and pushed me onto the bed and forced my legs apart and pushed his hand inside to find the semen that wasn't there. I had long since, by that time, decided that sex was not on my agenda for this life. N had taken it and I had given it and there was really nothing left at all except the same dresser drawers and dishes to divide.

But still. I stayed several more months. I went dead when he touched me. I slept next to him, dead, and when I finally was able to leave him, I stayed dead for almost a decade. I was never going to surrender to anyone again.

Now, my own body is pulsing with his poison. It's been twenty years since I last saw him. There's never been another man in my life who behaved like he did. I feel like I'm detoxifying after a long inebriation. I am anxious today. I feel closed and hollow and as I watch and listen to my body, I go back to the routine Cain gave me on Wednesday to do for a week. Malasana. Slow. Hold onto the door. Breathe into safety. Breathe into forgiveness. Trust the body to release what it's been holding. Connect the pelvis and the heart.

I woke up at 2:30 am this morning, terrified. Keith slept next to me. I couldn't touch him. I reached my hand out, but it shook. I wanted to throw up. I was dizzy. Just lying in bed watching the moon through the blinds, I was dizzy. The feelings lasted until almost 8 this morning after I did my routine. Malasana. Slow. Hold onto the door. Breathe into safety. Breathe into forgiveness. Trust the body to release what it's been holding. Impurity-asana.

Let go of what doesn't serve you.

Connect the pelvis and the heart.

Let go.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sacred Muse; Sacred Music

Last night I had the privilege to hear the husband and wife duo Shantala perform at Yoga Shala. They create an amazing kirtan. The room was filled -- so filled in fact that we had steam on the windows (an odd occurrence for Arizona!). We "Om'd" them in and then sang with them for ninety minutes. Benji, who performs backup vocals and percussion, opened with a dedication of the whole year's performances to his mother, who had died on Christmas day. "To say it is the hardest thing I have ever gone through is an understatement," the 50 year old man said. "Her spirit will be dancing with us tonight in her flannel shirt and Goodwill hat."

We laughed in that way of laughing that hides the sadness. I watched the man next to me brush his hand over his eyes. The woman on the folding chair in front of me kept her eyes closed while tears eeked out the edges. I wept openly, though silently. I imagined her spirit in a flannel shirt dancing with my father in a golf shirt while we all, those of us embodied now, re-remembered how fragile our flesh was. Benji talked of unlikely teachers. He talked of the battles his mother fought against the government for denying the increased cancer risks of people living under exposed power lines. He told of her coming to his concerts at 80 years old with her 40 (yes, 40) year old boyfriend, tapping her feet and dancing. The greatest way to honor her spirit, he said, was to use his gifts.

Then, they sang -- sita ram ram ram ram hanuman -- Benji and Heather; husband and wife; Shiva and Shakti.

Helen, one of my novel's protagonists, circled above them, called, apparently, at the news of the death of Benji's mother. "My mother died when I was eight," she whispered to me. "That's why I had to leave Georgia. That's why I couldn't take care of Claire. That's why I killed Ellie."

"You didn't kill Ellie," I whispered back. "You just didn't know how to take care of her."

"My mother lay in her bed dead for three days before my father came back home," she said. "I curled up with her." She took a swig of her whiskey. "I curled up with her." She took out her bridge and snarled at me, gums deep red. "Damn you."

I watched her, toothless, drunk and old, but still eight years old. I watched her watch Benji's mother hover over her son, fingers of light touching his skin. I watched her melt.

"Stop poking at me," she said.

I kept chanting, kept listening. I took off my fleece vest. I took off my socks and held my feet.

Sita ram ram ram ram hanuman

"There's no Ellie out there, dancing."

I shook my head. No Ellie. She'd been dead almost 40 years. Helen hadn't wanted her. My dad wasn't out there dancing either, though I could easily project that he was. He's been dead 20 years. Even ghosts move on.

It's a thread of mothers, I thought. Unbearable Compassion is a thread of mothers.

Benji's mother wasn't gone yet. She could still cover him in yellow light. Helen and I looked at each other in the dark studio. Benji was indeed a lucky man.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Accessing sadness

The lungs are the organ that holds grief. When we store (stuff) grief in our bodies, it exhales from the lungs with a sound reminiscent of weeping. The liver, its companion organ, begins to toxify when the lungs have had enough. A month ago, at a bodywork session with my teacher, Cain, he pressed my liver until it screamed. Then, somehow he managed to work his knife-like fingers in between my ribs and poke at my lungs until gunk came out -- the coughing, panicked gunk of someone held too long underwater. There were tears, but not many. There was much more coughing, much more desperate grasping and gasping for oxygen. When Cain asked me what I felt right before this unexpected release, I said, "I don't know." That was true. I had no idea what sadness felt like. This was the 'yang' chi nei tsang session. The session where Cain pushed and poked and forced and moved 30 year old enmeshed emotions.

Yesterday's session was the kindler-gentler chi nei tsang session. The yin version. The opening that can occur only after the clearing out has occurred. Yesterday there was no coughing. No pain in my liver. No snake of lymph nodes across my belly. Yesterday there was tingling throughout my whole body, a dizziness in my head, and a spaciousness that held a laughing ball of light.

I am not good at sadness, though my mother would likely disagree. I am much better at anger. At our first chi nei tsang session back in November, Cain said he kept hearing "anger masking sadness" when he was working on me. I'd always felt it was more the opposite -- sadness masking anger. I thought anger was the base emotion. The one that dare not be named. And that may be true -- especially for women. But I remember anger and I remember how much energy it took to feed. Sadness, on the other hand, requires a softness. In order to feel sadness, you must be able to be vulnerable. The anger protects the sadness. The anger keeps the real truth from coming out. Anger may burn and turn into cancers and heart attacks, but sadness festers and creates a sticky swamp of stagnation. Sadness solidifies the body.

What does it feel like to experience sadness? To really stay in the chair while the sadness moves through you? I don't know yet. Maybe that's the secret to Unbearable Compassion. Maybe that's the way back into that book. I don't know. I know I don't have any energy left for anger -- for the fury, the rage, that I thought had fueled most of my writing. Without that anger, it's harder to create momentum (to use an overused political phrase right now). To access sadness requires patience, and an opening rather than a closing. A feminine approach rather than my much preferred masculine approach. Sadness requires listening. I'm noticing that when I get close to sadness, anger jumps in, and the anger usually jumps in with a judgment or a rationalization which results in ultimately silencing the sadness, which results in it continuing to resurface in my lungs, my liver, my shoulder.

My characters: Claire, Helen, Frank -- they are all deeply sad. How have they masked that sadness? How have they kept it down in their bodies? What if Helen cried instead of drank? What if Frank cried instead of stuck to his rigid routine? What if Claire cried instead of ran? How long do you have to go without crying (really crying) before your body treats its tears as poison rather than healing?

I am trying to soften. I'm trying to have fewer sharp edges. I'm trying to let my femininity merge into vulnerability. I am guessing, as has been the truth my entire life, that my characters will show me how to do this.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Texas is a big state

So, I've spent a lot of my time today reading other writer's blogs and feeling a bit more normalized. I had to go into a meeting at work on Monday, which has got me back in the syllabi-writing, class-planning mode, which I was hoping not to get back into until next week. Students don't return until January 23. All this to say, I am still distracted and I feel deeply sad and empty. I'm not sure this is a bad thing at all. I am just feeling it and trying to let that be enough.

Today I managed to write 500 words on Unbearable Compassion, but they pretty much suck. I'm waiting to hear back from my editor at Shambhala about Between Skins (and nothing, I mean nothing, can stall a project's progress more than waiting to hear what an editor has to say!) :-) I came completely undone yesterday after reading a Naomi Shihab Nye poem on line. I'll post it here for you. I can't find any copyright information or source text for it.

Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal
by Naomi Shihab Nye

After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.

Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate.

I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her
Problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
did this.

I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?

The minute she heard any words she knew -- however poorly used -
she stopped crying.

She thought our flight had been cancelled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
following day. I said no, no, we're fine, you'll get there, just late,

Who is picking you up? Let's call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.

I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
would ride next to her -- Southwest.

She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and
found out of course they had ten shared friends.

Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering

She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies -- little powdered
sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts -- out of her bag --
and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
the lovely woman from Laredo -- we were all covered with the same
powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookies.

And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers --
non-alcoholic -- and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American -- ran around serving us all apple juice
and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.

And I noticed my new best friend -- by now we were holding hands --
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,

With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.

Not a single person in this gate -- once the crying of confusion stopped
-- has seemed apprehensive about any other person.

They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.

Not everything is lost.

The part that got me was the plant. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. I got to thinking about our move from North Carolina to Arizona again. How unrooted that was for me, and how I spent the greater part of my adolescence (and I had a LONG adolescence) longing for the land we left -- the literal land, not necessarily even the life we left, but the red clay mud. I never ever felt rooted in Phoenix. Living in Phoenix felt, for me, like I imagine my poor houseplants feel (I'm definitely going to plant-hell). I have never been in Texas on two projects before. Never been so unable to find a way in to my work. I hear them -- the characters in both books -- sometimes I see them -- but I can't embody them now. Maybe I'm working too hard on embodying my own body with the yoga teacher training I'm doing. Maybe I just haven't figured out all the work I need to do yet before the books begin to come.

I've been getting some wonderful reviews of Writing Begins with the Breath, and one of them said -- (summarizing) -- if you want to write the great American novel, read this book first. Whereas that's great for ego-boosting, it's kind of hilarious when one is in a block (which I don't believe in) of monumental proportions. Ha. What can I say about writing the great American novel? I can talk about checking e-mails constantly. I can talk about on-line shopping and how to find great coupons. I can talk about prepping the next semester's classes in an effort to avoid the few precious days left for immersion in my own work.

I don't think I know how to play at this being a writer thing. It's easier to be a teacher. I don't know how to move into "Writer" gracefully. It's like there's always a little edge of self-sabotage around everything I want to do. I've got one of my characters, Claire, holed up in a vacation rental in Manzanita, Oregon. She just fled San Francisco. Her father, Frank, just walked off his job and is wandering around Chinatown looking for the ghost of his dead brother, Benjamin. Her mother, Helen, is stuck in the whiskey bottle she's been stuck in since 1968 when her infant daughter, Ellie, drowned at her breast. The family has unraveled. The "raveling" was never authentic. The family stuck together because of atrophy. All the ghosts are coming out, and I, who ADORE ghosts and put them in everything, can't find the ghosts' voices. I can't find the places that cut and bleed. Everything is flatline for all of them. Not a terribly dramatic situation. Not much tension. Just a lot of very deep sadness. Anger masking sadness. Apathy masking sadness. But sadness. That's the theme. That's the core of them all -- this dark, edgy, infinitely complicated sadness.

Sadness is the emotion I don't know how to touch.

Humph. So there's the root issue.