Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shedding Skins

A reader of Writing Begins with the Breath in Sydney, Australia e-mailed me and wanted to know who Necahual was. The quote in the above photo is from Necahual, a character in my novel Bone Dance. I used the quote as an epigraph for chapter 16 in Breath. I laughed. I made her up. Necahual means "she who was left behind". The idea that readers in Australia were googling her made me (and Necahual) very happy. I forwarded the e-mail to my agent with a note -- Maybe we should try and publish fiction in Australia!

But the reader's e-mail got me thinking about the novel again, though it's been two years finished. She got me thinking about Necahual, about why I wrote the book, why I seem to only be able to write magical realism. What is it about magical realism that serves me? Why do I have to have a ghost in everything?

Cast off what doesn't serve you before it robs you of your life.

Maybe magical realism allows for the possibility of things that just don't seem to happen in "regular" life. Maybe it allows for a freedom of the spirit that seems more natural to me. Maybe I'm really just a Gothic Southern horror writer and need to get over my bad self. :-)

I've been doing a 49-day daily practice of shaking. I'm in another yoga program with my teacher, Cain, and this program is Taoist based. We're working with the energies within the body. The first thing we have to do every morning is shake. We take our minds through the body, beginning with the scalp and ending at the toes, and we shake into them. There's nothing complicated about shaking. You just stand there, tongue on the roof of your mouth, teeth lightly touching, and shake. At first, it's the most annoying thing you'll ever do. Everything jiggles and wiggles and itches. Then, you notice that you're at your essence, a pretty cranky person. The shaking stirs the pot. It brings up things that have been hidden in your liver, in your veins, in your small intestine. The shaking leaves you no more places to hide.

After about two weeks, something shifts and the shaking moves to a new level. You shake spontaneously. You intuitively know where you need to shake things free that morning. You walk down the stairs at 6:30 and look forward to twenty minutes of shaking. When you're done, the day is fresh and your body is open -- every organ, every joint, every cell is singing. I feel free in my body and in my mind.

My writing has cranked up a notch since the shaking began as well. Just like I noticed a huge leap in my writing after I began practicing yoga, this shaking practice pushes me even further. I feel safe to explore issues and ideas I haven't been ready to do before. I feel like the channels for writing are open.

Cast off what doesn't serve you before it robs you of your life.

And beautiful Necahual, my ghostly skeleton woman, shakes with me, her bones clattering a beat both of us can dance to.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I spent several hours yesterday booking plane tickets and hotel reservations for our trip to North Carolina in July. Keith and I will be spending two days in Wilmington with my dad's family (an experience that will no doubt give me writing fodder for years) and then going to Charlotte for a day to do I'm not exactly sure what.

My friend Donna, who we'll be seeing there, told me the hotel I picked for our stop in Charlotte is in a "really bad place." I picked it because it was only a few miles from the neighborhood where I grew up. I picked it because it was on the way into town from Wilmington, and because it was close to the public pool in Matthews where mom used to take us swimming in the summer after we'd done all the vacuuming. I picked it because it was a zip code I recognized. "I don't think you want to stay there," my friend said to me on e-mail today. "I'll find you a different place." She said she hasn't visited the neighborhood much. She'd rather remember it the way it was.

I wrote e-mails to my aunt and cousin in Wilmington yesterday to give them our flight information. I closed each e-mail with "I'm really looking forward to coming home." And each time I pressed SEND, my heart opened. I am really looking forward to coming home. And I know that it isn't home. Not anymore. I know that what I remember has vanished with the thirty years of living that have happened since we moved. I know this in my head, and I know I'm still going to cry when I see it again with my body.

The picture at the top of this post is Idlewild Elementary School. This was my elementary school. The exterior is the same blue it was in the 1970s. See that window right behind the flagpole? That's where I sat my second grade year in Mrs. Whisenhunt's class. I looked out that window all the time at the traffic going by on Monroe Boulevard. In the warmer months, the windows were open because the school of course had no air conditioning. If we were lucky, and had a dime, we could get an ice cream sandwich after lunch on the warm days.

My sister and I could walk to the school. We were Beaver-Cleaver suburbia with our straight fine hair and matching backpacks. After school we played in the woods alongside the property. I learned to ride my red bike with the white banana seat in the school parking lot. I had a special tree in the playground I would sit under and read HARRIET THE SPY and write in my journal in all capital letters, just like Harriet. I loved this school.

In 1971, in the landmark case of Swann vs. the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Charlotte schools were ordered by the federal courts to force integration through busing. I watched the sweet Baptist church women of my neighborhood march to the parking lot of Idlewild Elementary when the African-American children were getting off the buses and throw rocks at the five and six year old children. I watched them shout things I didn't remember hearing at church, and I saw the five and six year old children cry and cling to each other. I was bused 25 miles away to Lincoln Heights Elementary school. The bus ride to south Charlotte was the first time I'd ever seen the housing projects. The bus ride to south Charlotte showed me that suburbia wasn't life. I saw people on stoops of tiny row houses sleeping on couches. I saw drug deals on the corner. I saw poverty for the first time. What the white Baptist ladies thought was a black thing (or, you can imagine, an n-word thing) was most definitely not that. It was a poverty thing.

Because I am white and privileged, I was only bused one year before my parents pulled me and my sister out of the federally mandated system and placed us in private schools. But I couldn't go back to being an Izod-wearing preppie girl anymore. I had grown much more than a year during those long bus rides.

In 1981, we sold our house to an African-American family. Our next door neighbors, the man and woman who had given me my first New Testament, the man and woman who had literally saved my father's life in 1976 when he had his first heart attack, built a screaming orange fence on the property line between our house and theirs and never spoke to us again. Rocks were thrown at our house. A cross burned in our yard. Neighbors who had once brought us chicken and jello when dad was in the hospital called us "n----- lovers" (I can't even write the word it scalds me so) and swore that no n----- would ever move into that neighborhood. They held neighborhood meeting without us, and when we pulled away from the house for the last time to move to Phoenix, the only person waving goodbye was my friend Donna.

Today, I checked the demographics for Idlewild Elementary School. 53.8% African-American, 5.2% Asian, 28.8% Hispanic, 0.3% Native American, 2.4% multi-racial, and 9.6% white. 9.6% white. Guess there weren't enough stones to throw at the buses to keep the numbers as white as they wanted them in 1973.

The kids at the top of the blog are from Idlewild's 2007-2008 Odyssey of the Mind team. They won the state competition and will compete in May in Maryland for a national title. Go Idlewild Eagles!

They sure are beautiful kids, aren't they? Check out all the different colors. Check out all that smiling.

These kids come from my neighborhood.

My neighborhood.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Yellow Swing

Writing a memoir is counterintuitive. To do it well, you have to bear unflinching witness to yourself as character in the story. You have to recognize that you are not the you you are writing about. Say that three times fast. Even better, try to do it. It’s intuitive to put on protective gear when searching for dangerous deep sea creatures. But if you do, the creature won’t talk to you – at least not honestly. And a story without honesty is, well, a lie.

To write memoir, to attempt to make art out of the slippery material of a life, means you don’t take the oxygen tank. You don’t even take the flippers. You just dive off the boat and hope that your vulnerability brings out the vulnerability of everyone you’re going to meet down there. That’s what memoir does. It pulls you from your comfortable fuzzy chair (or podium) of understanding narrative and literature and language and criticisms, and it brings you face to face with the one thing you’ve buried under your avalanche of degrees and fictions. It traps you in, holds your eyelids open ala Clockwork Orange and says, “OK baby. Tell me what you see.” And at first, you hem and haw and theorize and analyze and attempt to concretize, but after awhile, your eyeballs ache from staring and you just surrender because at that point you have no other choice.

That thing is there. In front of you. You can’t pretend you didn’t see it. You can’t pretend it didn’t see you. There’s nothing left in the world now but you and that thing that you’ve been consciously not seeing all of your life.

“I am the story,” it says. And you don’t believe it because you can’t see the narrative arc, and you wonder about the drama, and you realize you have not had the most dramatic of lives, and so you try to swim back to the surface, but your eyelids are still pried apart and you are strapped to the chair anyway, and really, now, you’re a little curious. The other quality all writers have. Without it, we spout the same stuff from book to book. With it, we reinvent, revise, and restructure all the time.

“All right,” you say. “Tell me the story.” And you listen and you take notes, and you are grateful, in spite of your burning eyeballs and exhausted writing arm, you are grateful because nothing less than magic has occurred.

The image that occurred for me was a yellow swing. When it came to me the first time, I saw no inherent story there. Just a sweet memory of a little girl who used to think she could fly. But it kept coming back. The cheap plastic of the swing. Its Big Bird yellow color. The sheets on the clothesline nearby. The neighbor’s bulldog, Tony. The clouds with their incessant swirling – their movement enough joy for anyone in a lifetime. I began to notice more – the neon yellow and green colors in the ropes that held the swing, wrapped four times and nailed to a scrap piece of lumber, the tiny holes in the seat, delightful because I could feel the air from my flight on the backs of my legs, my mother singing Zip-a-dee-do-da while she put the wooden clothespins on the sheets.

And then I saw, or didn’t see, the story. The swing was empty. It was moving, sure, higher and higher, but no one was on it. No mousy-haired girl with too-green eyes. No laughing girl who found even the slickness of her tongue on her own teeth astonishing. No singing girl, who hadn’t yet been told she couldn’t sing. And that was it. Where did she go? Why did she go? Can she come back? There are the narrative questions.

And the answer is a story.
I spent my 16th birthday in Wilmington, North Carolina. The photograph is in front of my computer. My grandmother sits in the high-backed mahogany dining room chair more than a few feet away from my grandfather. She's wearing a turquoise sleeveless dress. She doesn't look as hot as we all must be, in August in the south, in a home with no air conditioning. She's wearing a string of white faux pearls. My grandfather sits close to me, his glasses case poking out of his white shirt pocket. He has a long rectangular head, the only sign of his Cherokee heritage. I can count on one hand the number of times he spoke to me, but they were always kind words. He was silent, trapped, and decent. I'm in a pink and white striped polo, my hair in a tight perm in an attempt to be "big" (it was the 1980s). My dad, who will be dead in three more years, sits next to me with his arm around his older sister, my aunt Catherine. The way the photograph is shot, I can see the back of dad's head in the oval mirror that hangs above the tea service. The white linen cloth is on the table, and sweet tea is in everyone's glass. (I don't know why no one can make this west of the Mississippi, but they can't...I've been looking for, as we say, "a right long time."). We've got fried ham and sliced red tomatoes, along with biscuits and mashed potatoes. Sounds yummy, but my grandmother couldn't cook, and I remember eating mostly biscuits and tomatoes, waiting for the chocolate cake (the one thing she could cook).

The house where we're all sitting now belongs to my aunt. Of the five of us in the picture, only my aunt and I are still alive. I'm still a virgin in that picture (only two more years to go!). This was my dad's last year of relative ease; the last plane trip he took; the last time he was on his home soil.

I've been back twice since then, each time looking for him in the pine trees, each time leaving without him. I'm going back this summer. I'll spend my 40th birthday in North Carolina. I'll see my aunt, who is now 76. I'll drive past this house which holds us all still suspended in the promises of 1984. I'll walk out to the creek where dad swam with alligators when he was a boy, and my sister and I caught crabs when we were kids. I'll realize how much smaller everything is, now that I'm bigger. I'll want to walk in the sand on Wrightsville Beach, but will find it's more crowded than it was then, and that I really don't see anyone I know anymore.

But I have to go back this summer. I don't know why. I may not know why after I leave again. But I have not become a Southwestern girl, even though it's been 27 years. I have not embraced the west and its big skies and its dry air, even though I am a happy girl. I miss trees that stretch so tall I can't see the sky, and a green so fierce I need sunglasses. I miss lightning bugs and the songs of crickets.

But most of all, I miss what I'll never find, no matter how many times I go back - the possibility of a family.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Gifts from the Desert

Last night I drove out SR89 toward the tiny town of Wilhoit. The moon was two days from full. More than a decade ago, I drove up to Prescott after work on a Friday to meet my best friend Carol Anne at a Girl Scout camp off of Thumb Butte Road where she was spending her summer as a nurse. The moon was full that night, and as I drove along the winding dirt road toward Willow Springs Girl Scout camp (on a road I had no idea would be the road I now live on), the yellow pie of moon through the pine trees that had not yet been devoured by drought, fire and bark beetle, began to lodge in my blood. I spent the weekend at the camp (a camp I would work at, running writing circles for girls, for five years) and was reminded of the smell of earth, the itch of grass against bare ankles, and the kiss of running water. I was of course also reminded how much I loathe camping. (Sorry ... that hasn't changed)

When I returned home from my drive last night, I was a bit dizzy and went to bed early. I couldn't sleep. I stared at the ceiling, stared at the cats, stared at my feet under the down comforter. I thought about turning forty in a few months. I thought about my father, who only had six years left to live after he turned forty. I thought about the unspeakable beauty of the moon. A well of water gurgled and gushed in me, and I curled into myself and sobbed. The beauty was so unspeakable.

Then I thought of Phoenix. I rarely mention Phoenix without resentment. I hated that place since the first day we drove into it in the summer of 1981. Phoenix was never what I wanted it to be. But I kept crying. The cats jumped off the bed when I blew my nose. I remembered driving up to Cave Creek to visit my friend Gus when the moon was full. I remembered the way the Saguaros by his house looked in the amber light. I remembered how much I loved sitting out by the pond listening to him play guitar and watching the bats. I remembered my friends Arvin and Mike, who held me in their arms weekend after weekend for a decade while I returned to myself. I miss these three men.

I remembered my friend Carol Anne, my first best girlfriend since leaving North Carolina. I would not be here in Prescott without her. I would not have published three books without her. I would not have known how caged my heart was without her. I miss this woman.

I remember Phoenix College. The first creative writing course I taught was a two-credit class on writing dialogue in 1994. I taught it before I even thought of going back to graduate school. I walked away from that four week class knowing that teaching was the next step for me. I entered grad school, got a provisional community college teaching certificate (back when there was a board that did such things), and began to teach fiction. Turned out I was really good at it. Turned out that teaching fiction taught me to write it. Turned out that the more I asked my students to be vulnerable, the more vulnerable I had to be.

I taught at Phoenix College for almost a decade. During that time, I also ran writing circles for the Lost Boys of the Sudan and for Afghani refugee women. I was a poet-in-the-schools, and ran month long residencies in grade schools and middle schools. I ran 12 week grief and loss programs, and I was in charge of a weekly grief support group. I ran after school programs for at-risk teens and worked at summer camps (in spite of my camping resistance). I worked with the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependency as a counselor. I ran writing groups for people in their first year of sobriety. I earned two master's degrees in four years, and I taught writing to every age group from kindergarten through graduate level.

My familiar, my beautiful orange cat Apricot, died while I was in Prescott for a weekend. My mom had come over to feed the cats and Apricot had curled up in the bathroom and vanished. When I came home on Sunday, I held her, wrote her a letter, and buried her in the solid earth of Phoenix. I had found Apricot the week my father died in 1987. I told her she would be my friend. But she wasn't just my friend. She kept me alive from 1987 - 1990. Her death in 2003 gave me my adult legs.

Phoenix took my father. He's buried in that place. Phoenix gave me my first break in a little off the wall theatre company called Planet Earth. Planet Earth gave me my friend Jeffrey, who has given me San Francisco and Italy.

I found my first yoga teacher, Eric, at Yoga Pura in north Phoenix. He taught me to breathe. He taught me to be still and feel. He put me in pigeon pose, where I cried in the middle of a 7 am class, and didn't say a word. He told me to keep my eyes closed during savasana; he told me I would deepen my experience if I didn't let the energy pour out of my eyes. He told me not to fidget.

Phoenix gave me eight years of experience in a corporate job doing copywriting and marketing. I sat in a cubicle, waiting for 5:00. That job taught me to multi-task, to purchase supplies, to contract out for services, to organize, to pay attention to details, to edit. It taught me how to say in 10 words what someone else had said in 100 words.

Phoenix gave me freelance textbook writing. I wrote science and social studies textbooks for 5th and 6th graders. I had to write reading comprehension questions. I had to write articles that were 250 words (not one word more or one word less). These articles had to be run through the Flesch-Kincaid reading level program. The F/K counts the number of syllables and the number of sentences in your piece and creates a ratio. This ratio determines whether or not the piece is written at a 4th grade level, a 9th grade level, a 12th grade level, etc. Not only did the articles have to be 250 words each, but they had to be exactly the grade level I was writing for. Try keeping things at a 4th grade level when the topic you're writing on is the rock cycle -- with big syllable words like igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. I learned how to be concise. I learned how to say what I mean. And I learned to detach from my work. If I hadn't learned how to detach from my writing, I wouldn't have been able to sell a word of it.

I received my first professional massage in Phoenix, as I began the long journey toward allowing myself to be physically touched again. Through my MFA program, I met Alma, my mentor, a woman whose writing I had admired for years. Through Alma, I have seen Mexico. Through Alma, I met Gayle, my beautiful writing companion and first reader. Through Gayle I found my agent, Linda. Through Linda, I sold LOST FATHERS and WRITING BEGINS WITH THE BREATH.

Through my Phoenix friend Gus, I found a circle of women in Prescott. Because of my teaching work in Phoenix, I found a full time teaching job at Yavapai College. Because I had planted roots, however reluctantly, in Phoenix, I was able to sell my house down there and buy a townhome here that overlooks Thumb Butte mountain, the same mountain I drove up on the way to Willow Springs camp so many years ago. Because of my yoga teacher Eric, I sought a yoga teacher here, and found Cain, a man who has helped radically shift my life since I moved to Prescott.

When resentment dissolves into gratitude, the body cannot contain the bright moon-glow of the heart. Thank you, Phoenix. May the salt water of my tears wash away the hard edges of your streets. Let there be a new relationship between us now. I don't belong with you, but I welcome all you have given me, and all that you have taught me fully and unconditionally into my body.

I am through fighting you.

You were never what I wanted you to be, but you were everything I needed so that I can now do fully what I am here on earth to do.

Ah, the blessed wetness of forgiveness.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Ya Can't Always Get What You Want

Maybe it's because I'm approaching 40. Maybe it's because the honeysuckles are now in bloom, and no scent makes me sadder. Maybe it's because I had lunch with my mother on Saturday and she had forgotten that I was just down there a few weeks ago. I watched her walk to her car and watched her legs moving slower, the back of her head showing thinning hair. I listened to her tell me the same stories over and over again, but underneath it, I saw a girl. My mom is only 67. I am at the top of the hill; she is on the way down.

And there's that damn honeysuckle that takes me back to North Carolina. Back to when I was the girl that may still dance behind my eyes if I am lucky enough to reach 67.

I am in my life now. Something clicked this year and I realized I'm not moving toward it anymore. I'm not waiting for it. I am in it. So then what? If I'm not moving forward am I stopped? A new paradigm needed to surface.

So one did.

I've now been told by my agent and my editor in the past week that the only thing harder than selling a first book is selling a next book. This is no doubt the truth. I have also been reminded that Anne Lammott only wanted to be a best selling novelist. Although she is a best selling author, she is not a best selling novelist. Natalie Goldberg wanted to write novels. Her only novel is not close to the league of her memoirs.

It is now not a matter of if I will do a second book with Shambhala. The only details to iron out now are timing and content. They trust me now, they said. They want me to write organically. They want to know what I want to do. We'll sign a contract when there's a bigger advance on the table after this summer of workshops increases book sales even more. Go figure that one. My inner Lutheran wants to sign today and take the current offer before disaster strikes. My agent says wait. We've got it now. You've got the power in the relationship now. You want to work with them and they want to work with you. Wait for three months. Second books are harder. Stop chasing now and sit.

I've spent the better part of last year grasping at something to sell to them before my editor moved on, the publishing house folded, a new attack occurred on American soil -- any number of factors out of my control that can crush a writer's career. I've false-started more in the past nine months than ever in my career. I have a lot of pages of "stuff". I have an image of a yellow swing in a North Carolina backyard. A squirrel in the snow. A bulldog. I have a concept I like but not a lot of substance yet. I have two fleshed out proposals with no juice. The same questions haunt me, knock on my skull to find form, spin away in disgust. The same questions challenge my nature of pushing, forcing, making something happen from nothing. These questions only dance in color when I'm still.

I have let the thought in now -- I may never sell my novels. The timing seems to not be right. I may be supposed to use writing in other ways. I may be supposed to help others find their voices. I may be supposed to write nonfiction. Being in service to the work doesn't mean only when it suits my objectives. I can't not write fiction. But perhaps I need to release an expectation of selling it. This year has opened doors I never thought I'd reach. I will be teaching in one of the best retreat centers in the world in New York. I'll be there with people I only know from bookshelves. I'll be one of those people. I will bring what I've been given and see what happens next.

It's the honeysuckle, most likely. Nothing makes me sadder. As a dream shifts focus, what happens to the remnants of the desire? Like first drafts, it gets you where you need to go. But you can't drag it with you. You can't drag the ladder up onto the roof.

You can only be on the roof, feel the breeze from three directions at once, root your feet into the shingles, and say thank you.