Friday, September 26, 2008

Jeffrey's final performance

This is the final piece of Shark Bites. I included some of the text in my earlier blog today. This was part of the benefit Jeffrey wrote and performed in to raise money for his medical expenses. This performance was just a few months ago.

Shark Bites: The Butterfly Effect

As he says, we are out of time.

A most extraordinary man has died (no not David Foster Wallace)

And though this man may be having drinks with David Foster Wallace now, it's more likely he's toasting with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. And, I hope with all my heart the next world is kinder to him than this one was.

I met Jeffrey Hartgraves in 1990, just after I finished my undergraduate work at U of A. We met at Playwright's Workshop Theatre in downtown Phoenix, and from that moment on, became writing friends, then friend-friends, and ultimately, he and I became each other's muse, each other's confidante, and each other's best cheerleader in our writing and creative work. I have never met another man as funny, as spontaneously wicked and brilliant, and I have never met another man who felt quite as deeply the isolation of existence. He was ungodly talented -- directing, acting, writing, visual art -- he really could do it all exceptionally well. I don't know if he ever believed in how talented he was, or if he ever realized, truly, that he was loved by so many people. His heart had been wounded young, and he walked through life with that ache.

Jeffrey's creative resume is extensive. When he moved from Phoenix to San Francisco in 1994, his life exploded. He worked in the theatre. He wrote. He performed. He directed. He won awards. He was always in a show, always writing a show, always excited about language and books and art. We would read each other passages over the phone -- poetry, prose -- anything that moved us. We sat in cafes together (Momi Toby's in San Francisco) and wrote and wrote and wrote. We wrote plays together and gave readings together.

We went to Italy together in 1999 and held hands while fireworks exploded over the canals in Venice on New Year's Eve. Everyone in Italy thought we were married. (It was a bit much for them to imagine a gay man and a woman traveling together, perhaps!) We loved beauty, and through each other, we saw more beauty than we could see alone. We walked through the ruins of Pompeii and pet the cats in the Colliseum. We froze in a castle in Rome and stood in awe, for likely the same reasons, under the statue of David.

He was lonely, as we all are, and I watched him from my home in AZ move in and out of his lifelong battle with alcohol. I watched him search for companionship and an intellectual and artistic equal. I went to visit him a lot after he moved to San Francisco. Sometimes the visits were perfection -- filled with avante garde theatre, a single glass of wine, Italian food, and literature. Sometimes he drank too much and I left feeling like I could not go back until he got that piece of his life under control. But I always went back, and he didn't always drink, and I knew he wasn't ready to give it up. Always, we wrote and always we talked about art. There is no one else who filled that part we both played in each other's lives.

In 2005, Jeffrey was diagnosed with bone cancer. He endured excruciating chemotherapy. He started going to a counselor. He slowly began writing and producing a show about his illness -- Shark Bytes -- which was produced earlier this year to raise money for him. He had gone into remission for a time. Then, he had to undergo an 18 week chemotherapy bout over the summer. He hoped he would be done for a time. He had a show planned in Los Angeles. He was working on a book, MY CANCER CIRCUS. He was trying to get more freelance copywriting so he could earn some income.

Three weeks ago, right around his 47th birthday, he found out he was out of remission. He did not tell anyone. I've spent most of this morning on the phone with half of San Francisco trying to fill in the gaps of the story. He told no one. He retreated into himself, into his darkness and his fear of dying and his fear of pain and his utter frustration that his life was not working out like he had planned. I know this script. This was my father's.

He didn't tell anyone. He pushed his friends away. He called me at 1 in the morning a few weeks ago. I didn't answer the phone because I assumed he was drunk, and I'd had more than enough drunk middle of the night conversations with him. I planned to call him later, but I didn't. He called around the time he would have found out about his cancer's return. He didn't leave a message. Was he going to tell me? I don't know.

He'd told me many times over the last few years that he was not going through chemo again. The last three weeks he drank more than any of his friends had ever seen. He became violent, something he had never done. He trashed his apartment. It may seem inappropriate to say these things about a man who has died. If you knew him, you'd know it would be OK. When at his best, he never failed to tell it like it is.

No one knew why he was so angry so suddenly. He died in the night, alone in the apartment. The final coroner's report will come out this afternoon. The blood alcohol level was off the charts. There were pills. There was, I am sure from all my years of loving this man, the decision not to face a different, slower, perhaps more painful death. It doesn't matter what the coroner's report says. He exercised his right to script his own exit stage left.

But I am so sorry he spent his last weeks so angry. I am so sorry I did not answer the phone. And I am so sorry he did not get to have the life he felt was his.

Several years ago, when he was first diagnosed, he told me he was giving me his laptop and his writing when he died. We joked about it, but he wasn't joking. He was methodically going through his things and his life so he would be prepared and not leave people in a lurch. One of his good friends was charged with power of attorney. Everything has been in place for several years.

I will be getting a laptop and his writing. What else will come with that, I don't know.

I am angry that he drank. I am angry that he got sick, and I am angry that he is dead. I loved him fiercely, and already I feel the wind blowing through the place in my life where he lived.

Here's a piece from his play, SHARK BYTES:

I dreamed that I met God. She was sitting on a rather uncomfortable looking rock and she was blowing soap bubbles. That's all. No lightning. No throne. Nobody in sheets with harps. No cherubs or pearly gates. An empty field, a rock, and a little girl blowing soap bubbles. Soon the air was thick with floating rainbow bulbs, gliding and merging into bubble-clumps or falling and bursting on the pointed tips of emerald green grass.

Then it happened. It started small and grew like a wave of sound. Millions of tiny voices all at once. Each bubble had a voice, a spirit, which was rejoicing or laughing or crying. Some floated higher or lower, never seeming to touch the ground. Some were caught in the whirl and wake of others as they passed. Some though, fell straight from the hand of God, and filled with the same breath of creation, fell to a sharp, bursting end.

God's voice in my head said, "Choose the most beautiful."

I can't do that. They're all the same. I mean some reflect different colors and lights and some are different sizes. Some last longer, but they're all ...

"Choose," she said. "Which one should I not have made? Choose the good bubble from the bad bubble. Or choose, if they should all follow the same course, which one it should be. Would they be more wonderful if they all floated single file to the very same end? Or is there perfection in this chaos?"


I hope, my friend, that there is indeed a place like this, and that we will sit and blow soap bubbles and play word games and write scenes and love each other, still.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Today is the 21st anniversary of my dad's death. If he were alive, he would be 67. Last year I crossed the threshold of "I've lived longer without him than with him" that seems to be a milestone of the grieving journey.

Today is a beautiful day. The clouds are a slate gray edged with white. They fluff past my office window hinting at moisture. It's going to be about 80 degrees. It was hot the day he died in Phoenix. 100 +. We bought chocolate milkshakes at the Burger King on Peoria Avenue on the way home from the hospital. I then stopped eating for months.

Today, I am no more sad than I am every day. No day passes without that whisper of regret that I cannot call him, that he will never meet Keith, that he will never read a single one of my books. But I no longer expect that every time the phone rings, he'll be on the other end. I don't see him in passing cars anymore. I don't hear his voice, even when I try desperately to do so.

Twenty-one years is a long time gone.

Sometimes I wonder if I ever knew him at all -- if I just made him up, or if every single memory I have of him has been constructed in the framework of what I would have liked, rather than what actually happened. I can no longer remember at all. This year, I've written a tremendous amount about him, and my current YA novel is also working through his story in a different way. Yesterday, my agent called. There's a bite from New York on the YA book. Wow. That was fast. Of course, a bite doesn't mean a purchase, as I experience over and over again. But a bite feels good. His story continues to connect with others.

Today, as I write this in my townhome, watching the clouds change, I look at a picture of me, Dad, his parents, and his sister at the dinner table in our home in Wilmington. It was my 15th birthday. Only his sister and I are left. His sister is 76. In the picture, Dad is sitting in front of an oval mirror, so I can see both the front and back of his head. His moving forward and his moving away.

Is there a single thing I have written that did not come about as a result of his illness and his death? I don't know that there is.

The picture at the top is of dad and me in about 1969. I remember that book, and I remember that couch, and I remember the sound of his voice on the top of my head as he read to me over and over and over throughout my childhood. He whispered stories to me before I knew of language.

What does it mean to be a father? I can never know. I know what it means to be a daughter, though, and a writer, and I know that no matter what transpired during his life with us -- the things I remember, the things I don't remember, and the things I have made up -- what is solid in me is language. Is stories. Is the power of marks on a page to open up our hearts and connect us to something larger than ourselves. This has never faltered, even when I stopped eating. Even when I stopped crying. Even when I could never stop.

Today, when I think about what I would say to him on this day he dissolved into whatever is next, I would say, "You did great. Thank you. I am well."

Rest in peace, daddy.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Resistance is Futile

So, any Borgs out there who remember that tagline from Star Trek? That's been the theme of the end of my week as well as the path out of my four week illness.

There's nothing like having a teacher who can point out the circles of your own thoughts. Everybody needs someone like this. Just like all of us as writers need someone else to see our work and help us move it to the next level.

On Tuesday, I went to see Cain, frustrated and angry that I was still sick after four weeks – that I still had little energy – that I had no interest in doing anything – and that, damnit, I should be able to just get through it and be done.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Blah, blah, blah, blah, integrate, blah, blah, coughing, blah, blah.

Cain: More.

Me: Blah, blah, blah things fighting inside of me, blah blah North Carolina, blah, blah house.

Cain: More.

Me: Blah, bleck, bleck, blah, inner child, frightened, blah, blah.

Cain: Not reality.

Me: Huh?

Cain: More.

Me: Blah, blah, energy, book, crying, can't, blah, blah.

Cain: (nodding serenely)

Me: Huh?

Cain: Tell me about the book.

Me: Young adult, Dee, got the whole book from our visit to my house in North Carolina, energy transmission, blah, blah, scared.

Cain: More.

Me: I'm afraid if I write this book, if I go back to visit the place in myself when I was seven and Dad got sick ... I'm afraid I'll get stuck. I got stuck for 20 years.

Cain: (more nodding)

Me: Can I go there and come back?

Cain: You're not the same person you were then.

Me: Yeah.

Cain: So how could it be the same? You're resisting what you've been given. Of course you're going to feel like shit. You're fighting what the universe has given you. I've noticed it only gives us just enough rope to play with. The time always comes when it tells you exactly where you need to go.

Me: Yeah.

Cain: So I can't think of a more powerful example of attraction then the way you were pulled back into your house in North Carolina. You say you got the whole book in one swoop.

Me: Like two seconds. I touched a doorknob.

Cain: The whole download.

Me:The whole thing.

Cain: So we're always given exactly what we need in the exact way we need it to be able to do the work. If you hadn't gotten the whole book at once you might not be willing to do the work because you wouldn't trust you'd be able to get back from that place. If you'd have gotten it twenty years from now you might be too far along to get back to being seven. It's always perfect.

Me: Blah, blah.


There was more, but it's not relevant to this post.

Suffice to say, within hours my congestion was gone. Suffice to say the book is almost finished in such a short time (a whole book in four weeks?) Draft, I'll say for sure, but nonetheless, a book.

Blah, blah.
Resistance is futile.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Exploding with Something

It's Sunday afternoon and it's raining once again. Hard cold drops that crush new flowers. The thunder is heavy; the voice of an old man who hasn't spoken in years. I am between skins. I have been sick for almost five weeks. My appetite has declined to barely two meals a day. My energy level is some days 2/3 of what it used to be, some days 1/2. I've been to see my teacher, Cain, and we've done extensive body work. We've pushed through "new old" crap that continues to resurface. My beautiful friend and massage therapist gave me Thieves oil to mix with water and drink. Each day I feel better, and each day I feel more out of sorts.

I would be more concerned about this if I didn't know what it was. I know exactly what this is. What I don't know is how long it will take to work through it, or what will be waiting on the other side. Yesterday, I conducted a day long workshop with my favorite students from Phoenix. I was thrilled to work with them, and I am so proud (as close to mama-proud as I'll probably ever be) of their work as writers and their work with each other. But I found myself watching myself talk to them about qi gong, about food choices, about shaking, shaking, shaking until the patterns of stagnation fall away. I am using energy to teach with that is coming from a storehouse of energy, not from the flow of each moment. I am rebuilding myself, cell by cell. Right now, I fit in neither place.

I am shaking. Shaking, shaking, shaking. Whenever I think I have shaken it all free, there is more. I've been shaking for almost a year now on a daily basis. When I first started shaking, I was fierce and angry, hissing at everyone, impatient and passive aggressive. Then I became sad, and then, after a month or so, I felt clean. I felt empty -- I felt that there was space inside me for each day rather than each day having to compete for space in such a crowded place.

I know what this is. I have only cried once since we got back from North Carolina. I need more space for it. I don't have a weekend free again until Halloween. It's always this way when the semester starts, but somehow this time I am unready, or unwilling, to be at work completely. I will go. No one but the very observant will know I'm not there 100%. My bones are tired. My eyes are dry, but my body is full of water -- I'm a tidal wave that hasn't struck land yet.

I am working on a young adult novel now -- The Boy in the Walls -- that literally flowed into me when we were in my childhood house in North Carolina. I think I let it go. I am wrong. There is more. I think I let it go. I am wrong. There is still more. Still another book. Still another little girl to reach out to and welcome back home. If the energy in our Charlotte house had been a wall of water, I would have drowned. As such, I stood in the middle of it and let it move through me, dislodging memories and dreams that I had indeed forgotten -- and the ones I had not forgotten I have tried for thirty years to erase.

I remember my dad, almost dead, in the hospital. I remember an acidic smell on his body once he was back home with us. I remember a bed set up in the living room because he couldn't lie down. I remember looking out the window in my bedroom for hour and years while everything changed, and I felt in August of this year, the shock of the shutting down that occurred in 1976. I remember the freezing in my body. One of the participants in my workshop yesterday talked about freezing to not be seen. I could relate completely. I thought of the bunny about to be caught -- how it freezes, heart beating faster than its breathing can keep up. How I know how that feels. How I know what happens when the heart beats faster than the breath.

When I went to visit Cain a few weeks ago for internal organ massage, he released my diaphragm. I had pulled it back up into my body after being in our house and I couldn't figure out how to release it on my own. Once I could breathe again, I began to feel better. But there is more to move. There is more of the girl I have hidden swimming in my veins.

Today, I watch the rain and feel the tension in the air as the water comes. I drink my tridosha tea and am grateful for my home, my job, my body. Grateful for the awareness and the space to notice what is waking up. Grateful to have my writing. Until whatever is sleeping wakes up, I am out of balance. I am too tired and too awake. Too hungry and too full. Too indifferent and too concerned.

Integration is bumpy. It takes an awful lot of shaking to dislodge a storyline that has been the foundation of my life.

Much easier,to pretend that everything is fine. But even when I tried to tell myself that everything was fine, I knew, in that way that you know before you learn to lie, that I was lying. Much easier to not keep pushing further, further, further, until I find the root of it all and cut it away.

But truth, slippery as newly-caught fish, always shimmers under the unrelenting gaze.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Spiral Dance

Novelist Ursula K. Le Guin decries the linear perspective that dominates
modern storytelling. She says it's "like an arrow, starting here and going
straight there and THOK! hitting its mark." Furthermore, she complains,
plots are usually advanced through conflict, as if interesting action can't
possibly arise from any other catalyst.

Rob Brezny included that gem in his weekly Free Will Astrology e-mail. This week, though I'm still feeling less than myself, I did manage to teach a little bit in between serving as tech support for 85 students and coughing too much. I've got a heavy load this semester. Five different creative writing classes. We always have to teach five classes a semester, but five different ones makes for an interesting juggling act.

This week we started doing some in-class writing at last, and I began the inevitable and constant work of helping the students look inward with ruthless scrutiny and ruthless compassion. Much of what I teach is not about writing in a linear way (though I dress it up nicely so it looks like the learning outcomes) :-). Most of what I do is guide students into their lifetime journey of self-exploration. Until they look inside themselves and find themselves shocked and awed, in despair and in love with what they see, they will not be able to create believable worlds on the page.

I walk around the classroom and listen to their disclaimers of their work. Before they'll even share what they wrote, they tear it down. New work is as fragile as an antique teacup. New work must be allowed to breathe and speak before it is shaped by the craftsperson. One student mentioned that she wanted to develop a more sacred relationship to her writing. I rarely hear that during the first few weeks, but by the end of a semester with me, very few people believe writing is anything but a sacred relationship. We're off to a great start so far.

Le Guin's statement hits at the heart of my philosophy on writing. Yes, plot is a causal relationship, but the structure of a story or a book can be anything but linear and expected. This may follow that in "real life", but in narrative we have the luxury of the manipulation of time and space. But wait. Does this follow that in "real life"? Or do we just perceive that it does? Pearl S. Buck says, "One faces the future with one's past." We look ahead to what we can be and do based on where we have been and what we have done. So even "real life" is not as directly causal as it appears on the surface. This follows that because of that and that and that ... or ... because that and that and that did NOT occur, this did. It's not a line. Remove a section within a line and you've still got a line. Remove a piece of a spiral and the whole pattern changes.

I teach to the odd mix within a classroom of people who want to be writers but don't read and people who are never without a book in their hands. A mix of 18 - 80 year olds. A mix of tastes -- romance writers, mystery writers, action story writers, literary fiction, horror, young adult -- all within a single class. A different series of causal events brought each of these warriors to the page and to the classroom. They love their writing and I love them because of it. I love their struggles and their frustrations. I love their false starts and their successful lines and paragraphs. I love most of all their warrior spirits that bring them over and over and over to the page. They are why I teach. There is no greater joy to a teacher than a student who takes his or her work seriously.

Whether my students publish or not, writing a novel or a story and following it through revisions, critique sessions, self-doubts, false praise, and finally that cutting, compassionate eye from within will change them forever. The world is a better place with each story written. Every time a writer takes a risk with her or his work, they give themselves the ability to take more risks in their "regular" lives. The way they approach their writing is the way they will approach their lives. Discipline and compassion cannot be turned on and off. Once the switch is flipped, they cannot go back to the way they were before.

When I look back on my life, I do not see it as a journey from point A to point B. I see it in defining moments. I see it in overlapping memories and overlapping relationships. I see it in a merging between what happened and what I wanted to have happened and what I have subsequently told myself happened. And I hope, when I am reflecting on my life for the final time, I will see the pattern I have written.

My pattern will not be a line that stretches from birth to death. My pattern will be a series of spirals, of turning in and back and around and forward. My pattern will dance, even as I spin away.

This is my sincerest wish for my students. When you look back on your lives, may your patterns spin and twist and meander. May the ending be the only possible conclusion to the work you've done. May you close your eyes and whisper, "It is perfect," and spin away.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hakuna Matata

According to Jon Stewart, the definition of hope has now been confirmed as a new kitten. I agree.

Here's our new kitten, Barack. He's 11 weeks old and already taking control of the house over larger, older, more experienced cats. He's mixed breed, orange and white, with big ears and even bigger paws. He's the embodiment of the melting pot of the new Feline Race. His take-no-prisoners attitude extends globally (upstairs and downstairs), and he's not afraid to talk tough and pounce on the reigning old-guard entitled cats of the house. In just a few short days, he went from being literally wet behind the ears (he needed drops for ear mites) to jumping up onto a bed that is twenty times taller than he is and assuming his rightful place in the center of it all.

Yes, hope is indeed a new kitten.

And, also according to Jon Stewart, Barack is the Lion King. (But we knew that all along, right?)

My friend Gayle Brandeis posted yesterday about a conversation she had with another friend of ours, Peggy Hong, about the state of poetry and writing in America under the Bush administration. I think she's right. There's been a great deal of self-censorship by writers, and a great deal of censorship by publishers (check out Random House's refusal to publish Jewel of Medina). Writers have often felt the need for social activism in these times has been more important than their writing.

It's time to take back our art and our voices. It's time to write what we see, what we feel, and what we hope (yes, hope) can be.

I want to draw your attention to Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's attempts at book banning in Alaska. A Wrinkle in Time seems to always make these lists, and I can never figure out why. This book was a foundational book for me when I was growing up, along with Harriet the Spy (which I guess either makes me unpatriotic, or a member of the Bush Administration's surveillance team) and Little House on the Prairie (family values, anyone?)

I try to keep politics off this blog as much as I can, though those of you who know me know my leanings. But this election scares me. I was scared in 2004 and those fears panned out. I'm 40 now. I've written and published three books. I have two currently being shopped by my agent, and a new, young adult novel in the works. I am a writer and I am a teacher, and I am afraid, desperately afraid, that we have gone too far to come back to a place where there can be a dialogue without accusations -- a library without censorship -- a cell phone without a tap. I am too young to believe I will have to live out my days under the kind of administration we currently have. I am too young to believe that we are, in our highest moments, as self-destructive as we have behaved. I am too young to believe that we are already lost forever.

Do I think Obama can fix the world? Of course not. But this is a man who wrote of his pain living without his father. This is a man who wrote his memoir by himself, on yellow legal pads. I know what it takes to write a book. I know what it takes to be that alone with yourself. To turn the lens of self-scrutiny deep into the parts of ourselves we don't want to acknowledge are there. A person who can do that has a courage that transcends weaponry and bravado. Anyone who writes knows that writers are warriors.

I read Dreams From My Father long before there was even the possibility of an Obama presidential campaign, and I was moved and encouraged by his fortitude, his voice, and yes, his technical skill with language. Language is my art, and when it's used skillfully and with humility, it moves me. And a man who can respect language, can endure the absolute vulnerability required to put out a story about his life that is not always flattering, not always "on message", and certainly not always about politics, is a man with a chance to help us open our hearts to one another again.

Just a chance. Just a small bit of hope.

A tiny new kitten.

Please, America. We are in a fragile moment in our nation's very short life.

A tiny chance. A small bit of hope.

We must have the courage to claim that hope. We must have the courage to believe in our essential goodness and compassion. We must have the courage to take the chance that a skinny kid with big ears and a honey voice is offering.

A small bit of hope. This is more than I have felt in eight years.

Please, America.