Drive

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“What in the hell am I going to write?” I texted Tobacco Brunette — my first blog connection who has become one of my best friends. It was her I texted, spoke to as my car idled on the side streets and my voice shook. “There is a reason I tell stories about everyone else — otherwise I’d have to talk about myself.”  Let me tell you another one, I’d say, hoping you would, in all of it, forget there was a teller.

I woke up this morning shaking thoughts of Montana out of my head: peopleless vistas, old weathered station wagons with gas cans strapped to the luggage racks, the rolling golden fields and the dark rise of the mountains.  It isn’t the same there now, nothing is — and there is no going back there except as a tourist, a visitor and that’s what breaks my heart the most somehow — to know that it will never belong to me: its barren, hardscrabble, unyielding beauty.

For years wherever I was — I was a passenger, literally. I didn’t drive until I was 24 and in Boulder I used to tell my boyfriend to drive, just drive — drive us out into the Eastern plains so I could see the ridge of the front range — drive us into those small mountain towns just north of Boulder that seemed so quaint to me then — cradled by the foothills — drive. When we were living more as roommates than people who were supposed to love one another I would just tell him to drive  — as if contained and hurtling through space nothing more could happen, time would stop.  In the drone of the wheels and the blur of the line beneath us I would always look out to all the other places in the world that people lived and take, for that moment, their happiness as my own, that golden light held in their windows, the long light of dusk when children were called home.  Drive, I’d say, up 93 past Arlee and the Bison range — and the Missions  — did we stop the car there, in that small town ball field with its weathered, picket fence — all of the town mailboxes painted vibrant colors that had been scoured by the wind?  It seems a relic, these memories, in a day now where everything is catalogued and relentlessly archived — that I should hold these only in my head — the ranchers laying fence in the spring, the burning fields, the snow geese that settled in the marshlands — the frost coating all the grasses, the pond’s glaze of fresh ice catching the sky — the small birds that startled from the bushes along the highway with the roar of the logging trucks — the laundromats and the pay phones — all still there. Drive.

When I left Montana I left of all of my books, boxed, in the garage of a friend — his house not far from the Rattlesnake where I used to run, where once, I saw a mountain lion with a husky in its mouth, or did I dream that? The conservation officer with his binoculars passed solemnly across to me as I came in from my run — I’d seen the tracks and wondered, put it out of my mind.  I left my boxes behind and my friend gave me his boom-box and his CDs so I could play music on my twenty hour drive — my radio had long been torn from the dashboard of my 87 Subaru wagon.

I heard this song for the first time:

If you could see me now
The one who said that shed rather roam
The one who said shed rather be alone
If you could only see me now

Ive been too long in the wind
Too long in the rain
Taking any comfort that I can
Looking back and longing for
The freedom of my chains

If you could hear me now
Singing somewhere through the lonely nights

I left that land knowing that I would never come back.  I drove out of the mountains and into the badlands.  I watched birds dive and swoop in front of the car.  It was spring.  When I stopped for gas in North Dakota it was impossible to miss the feathers in the grill of the car — some small  bird I couldn’t identify.  In my own narrative I was a woman who kept moving.  If you’d ask me in those days I would have said I would keep moving north. Alaska, I would have said, I’ll stop then.  I will go as far as I can where few people are — I probably said that in a bar with a glass of whiskey in my hand because that was in the narrative too. Jameson’s on the rocks, splash of water.

Because in my narrative I would talk about everyone else, but just as in childhood when something happened and I would hoard it, hold it and only release it when I felt safe enough to do so — I didn’t really reveal myself. Vulnerability wasn’t my strong suit.  I thought about this for some reason as I stood at the stove over Thanksgiving.  I thought about how people could know me for years and then it would occur to me that they didn’t know how my father died, or my childhood or any of the stories that surrounded it and so, really, they didn’t know me — I wouldn’t allow it.

Caution, Hope, Vulnerability

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BILL MOYERS: Paradoxically, as you’re describing that blue sky, do you know what I was thinking about? The sky on the morning of September 11th. I– we were just, you know, we’re just a couple of miles from the site there. And there’s– my wife and I were coming to work, the sky was so beautiful. And at that very moment, the first of those planes was driving into the World Trade Center. So, I will always associate that blue sky that you just beautifully described with that moment. Now, what does that do– you know, you talk a lot about courting the imagination. What does that do to your imagination? When you’ve had that kind of experience?

BARRY LOPEZ: It’s a caution. That, you know, we have a way of talking about beauty as though beauty were only skin deep. But real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness in order to understand what beauty is.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

BARRY LOPEZ: And that’s what you– well, it’s just what you said. You’re talking to your wife in this blue sky goes gray. And a horror, a horror visits us. If you- try to separate these two things, you’re in trouble. What you must do is build a system of civilization that is as aware of darkness as it is of beauty. I would feel on thin ice if the world were nothing but beauty.

I need to remind myself by going to Auschwitz or by going to Afghanistan or by going to Northern Sumatra after the Boxing Day tsunami, and talking to people. And, you know, you used this word. And I use it all the time, too. Hope. How can we maintain our sense of hope when to go deep into the news is to encounter the kind of terror that can traumatize a person for the rest of their life? I think hope is a space holder that word. It’s not the false word, but it’s just- for me, it’s just holding a place for another word to turn up.

BILL MOYERS: Action. I mean, don’t you think? I mean, hope is actually- toxic. If you hold it long enough without some resolution.

BARRY LOPEZ: I would say yes. I would affirm that you have to have action. But I think the virtue that is, that we– you know, there are certain things that people say you shouldn’t talk about, because it makes people nervous.

The things that make us uncomfortable in public are a person who wishes to speak of what is beautiful. That makes everybody a little bit nervous, because many of us keep this jaded, cynical separateness with the world, because we’re cautious. We’re cautious. How many people do you know whose crying out is for intimacy? They want to be known. They want to be touched. But they can’t make that intimate connection without being vulnerable. You have to be vulnerable in order to achieve this exchange of intimacy. And you can’t be vulnerable unless you can trust the situation. And what we’re learning, many of us, is the world is not trustworthy enough for you to be vulnerable to it and gain that intimacy.

Another thing that makes people nervous is if you speak of faith, because immediately people think, Christian faith? Or Islamic faith? Or what kind of faith are you talking about? I’m not talking about any of those. I am talking about the belief in other people. The faith– when I have been in situations that are dangerous, physically dangerous, you know, in Antarctica or, you know, diving underneath ice down there, for example, which I did for awhile.

My faith is in my colleagues. And when I meet other writers, journalists, who’ve been doing this for a long time, trying to make us aware of what it is that we’re living in, I put my faith in those people. And so, the word that has come alive for me in recent months is to have faith in each other.

from Barry Lopez’s interview with Bill Moyer

Have you been reading Eden’s blog? Her recent trip to India?  If you want to see an amazing example of what a blog can evolve into — how people following one person’s compelling voice can lead to $300K for the helping the world’s poorest — you must visit.  When I came across this section in Moyer’s interview with Barry Lopez — the section on Hope made me think of Eden’s recent blog posts.

I don’t know how I came to find Eden — she used to blog under the name Topcat — and it was 2007, I think…and I just fell into her words — and it was this moment. She too was the child of an alcoholic father — when she wrote about her father’s death (and her step-father’s) the hair on the back of my neck, my arms — stood up.  She was a step-mother too — the same spread of years between she and Dave as between G and I — when I was pregnant with Z she sent me a package — I opened it up and it was the navy blue, Mexican blouse embroidered with flowers that she’d worn in a picture when she was pregnant with Rocco.  Her sister had given it to her, and then she to me.  I look at her blog and am reminded how much bigger we are than our individual stories — and how one of the reasons I have always written, and believed in the written word was that I believed it could save us.

I have a bit of soul searching to do about my own writing and process — this has been an upheaval for both me and for my family. I said to G “you know, when I started the blog, I think I needed to test the waters — with the material, the family material especially, to know if I was really brave enough to write that memoir” and it was material that needed to be written — it was the thing, as my teacher always said, that kept me  up at night — that I circled round and round and never left. “Well, now it’s just time to move on and write that novel, that tribal book” (G’s going to complain again that I misquoted him, but I swear that’s how he put it.  I say that laughingly — something will happen in the house and he’ll say something outrageous and I’ll crow “I’m going to blog about that” but I don’t, of course.) I do have a project I’ve been fascinated with and in love with but neglecting.

As the discovery of my original blog played out I understood, of course, the possible repercussions in the abstract — but wading through them as they are happening is another. I thought, in many ways, my blog evolved into being a love letter to our blended family, but no matter; what I was struck by in the aftermath was how I suddenly felt so incredibly vulnerable — it wasn’t the thought of members of my family or blended family reading it — it was the various constellations — the people who know me vaguely or not at all; the material felt too raw, too personal — and for the first time I realized the  veil I’d thrown over this — choosing to believe that whoever found themselves reading my words were mostly cheering for me, maybe occasionally rolling their eyes or seeing some pattern that was so clear to them but that I was missing, but never had I felt that I had said too much.

“I don’t think I have the guts to write that memoir” I said to G.

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I’m sitting here in the early dark. It’s silent. G has been up at Deer camp with his buddies since Wednesday. “Go.” I said. “Get out of here. Recharge. Remove yourself from this business.”  I wonder if it’s perplexing to him — because men operate, it seems to me, so differently.  I’ve tried to put G in my shoes and just can’t imagine it.  It’s like watching G endlessly play with Z in her playroom.  She makes him pick up the tiny horses from W’s castle Playmobil set — the same horses I used to try to make graze in the meadows or be watered by handmaidens while W searched through the castle for a tiny trebuchet or used the buckets I was watering the horses with to pour boiling oil over the walls. G will turn to me after one of these play sessions and say “I’m exhausted. I’ve talked more about feelings to that little girl than I have in my entire life up to this point” — he says it smiling, shaking his head.

What I had, after all, was a public space, like this one. The changes I’ve made are small — I’ll approve comments, something I never did before.  I’ll think a bit more about what I want this space to become.

What I know is that as a child it was writing that saved me, as a fatherless little girl who needed to know that she wasn’t alone — other people’s words were there.  When I was flailing in my early years as a stepmother struggling with infertility — I think of Lou, who died of melanoma in 2010, shortly after her daughter Kayla, turned one.  Lou went through 8 rounds of IVF before conceiving Kayla — and I think of her so often — the things that she and Eden understood that I needed someone, at that moment, to understand.

It was never my intention to make anyone the villain — whether my husband, my exes, my mother, SW — I was always blundering towards what it meant to be in this business of loving.  I’ll still blunder toward it here — maybe in different ways, but I hope whatever it is you came to this blog for – that you still find it.

Any decisions I made in closing up shop with my old blog, taking my internet sabbatical (closing down IG & FB) — were my own. And, just as a side note, after being off of FB for almost a week I’ve cleaned my floor for the first time in a year and a half.

Should you want to email me my contact info hasn’t changed. I still use the blog’s old one: wordgirlbloodsigns@gmail.com.

That We Are Here

It did, but the novel is a much more complicated art form structurally. Memoir is episodic—a looser construct than a bona fide novel. You start with an interesting voice; the rest follows. For a real novelist, the fiction provides a mask that permits honesty. For me, a novel became an excuse to make myself look better—my stand-in did volunteer work at the nursing home and knew differential calculus in the sixth grade. And my mother wasn’t my sloppy, turpentine- and vodka-redolent mother, but the complete opposite—a ballerina, very prim.

I also didn’t want to have to deal with the familial complications. My mother was still alive, my sister was a prudent Houston businesswoman. The memories were painful for them. — Mary Karr in her interview with The Paris Review on The Liar’s Club — when asked if it was true that her book, The Liars’ Club, began as a novel.

 

We’d been talking as you do with someone whose call you haven’t returned — I was feverishly trying to remember what it was I supposed to have called her about — and she was talking on and I was hearing her with the muffled distance that comes with inattention. Tell her.  Tell her.  Tell her. The voice in my head is always more insistent than the one coming out of my mouth.  I had texted the information to my brother — we’d bandied it back and forth between one another — I’d had a blog, I explained.  

No answer.

A place I’d been writing for a number of years — at first a place I went to for community and support when I was trying to conceive Z — but it became a place where I wrote, basically about my life.  I didn’t it publish on anything that I wouldn’t have submitted to a literary magazine, I wrote.

And I think he texted back at that point that he agreed with my husband that private is private;  I told him that this was, in some ways, a matter of business. The business of literature these days — the platform through which you might possible convince someone that your book is worth publishing.  I went on like that.  He said he could see my point.

I did say that I’m much more aware right this moment about what stories are mine to tell and what aren’t.  We left it at that, and that with everything going on currently I’d, of course, dropped the ball on Thanksgiving plans.  When my mother-in-law called yesterday I had to ask her when it was “next week” she cried.  I am not prepared for the current of holiday that sweeps me along at this time of year — and so when I’d called to tell my mother that we would indeed be home for Thanksgiving she informed me that she’d already planned a Thanksgiving for Saturday because she hadn’t heard from me and assumed we’d be up north.  After she told me she’d be happy to come if I were making a turkey we were about to get off the phone and I wondered if she could hear it in my voice — that tone of hers that I know withholds something.  I have always known.  When she called me In Missoula — I feel like it was the new year even — the millenium — and I was in my old apartment on Front Street — the one a stone’s throw from the river — with a big bay window and porches front and back — old pantries and warped hardwood floors.  That was the apartment where I would talk with Jill and another woman — ten years older than me at least — they would sit on the back porch while Jill created elaborate rock gardens and the other woman smoked — she had long dark hair, thick black eyeliner, and collarbones that made her seem fragile.  I never knew what their stories were, not really, not enough.  I wish I’d asked.  I was living there alone after the New Year when my mother called and from the moment I answered the phone I knew, just knew, it was something. This was the same tone that preceded all of the bits and pieces of our life together, of her life, of my grandmother’s, my grandfather … any one of the family stories that filled the hours of my childhood — let me tell you something I haven’t told you yet… That night she asked me if I was sitting down because she’d been diagnosed with cancer.

I moved home that spring and left a place that was my heart’s home — you’ve probably heard me say it before a thousand times — that I fell in love with Missoula like a lover — but like one who didn’t treat me well — I was bottom-of-the-barrel poor, putting jobs together piecemeal and damned if I was going to go back to waitressing after all of that.  In my mind sometimes there’s some other me out West still — some me who had a better sense of the world and what she was worth — whose belief in scarcity hadn’t sent her, in some ways, homing back in on the most familiar place of all.  Other writers I know have gone on to big house publishers — one even has an adventure type show on cable.  I went to a writing conference in Santa Fe when I was teaching at the Community College — I packed up an essay I was working on — thrilled because C.Michael Curtis — who’d been at the Atlantic (and might’ve still been there at the time) was going to be heading my workshop — and he’d sent me a personal rejection letter once when I was in grad school on one of my short stories.  I still had it in my binder of rejections. The workshop was a  horror.  I mortified myself by bursting into tears, and not small ones, when he savaged the work.  I mean it was significant enough that it was mentioned in line at the buffet while I grabbed a croissant next to Natalie Goldberg who said something to the effect “oh, you’re the one who cried” — and … anyway.  When I told C.Michael that I had an MFA from Montana he’d said, in a surprised tone I might add, “Oh, we get a lot of great writing from there” — my essay clearly not representative.

Why am I telling you this?  Coming out of the chrysalis of my anonymous blog is terrifying, I guess — because I first came to blogging to repair a terrible writer’s block. In 2006 or so I went to Squaw Valley and when Al Young asked me why I was there I said because I’d put my short stories in a drawer and I didn’t want to forget that I meant to be a writer — and call myself a comp teacher for the rest of my life. (God bless you Composition Teachers — please don’t take that the wrong way — I just didn’t have it in me.) 

“Well,” I said “ummm… remember when you said I could write anything”  

She paused and sort of half-laughed “yeah” 

And I told her. That I’d had an anonymous blog, and the reasons why I was beginning another one, non-anonymously “I told you all those years ago when you went to college” she said “you have carte blanche” she paused “as long as you don’t make me look like a monster.”

We talked a little more and she told me how she was planning a trip to Florida to meet her half brother. “Don’t you remember I told you about this” she asked and I said yes but then realized it was all new to me. She went on about where she might stay — all along that coast of Oleander — and she told me how she had told her friend the story, and then she paused, “and about Daytona” — and by Daytona she means fleeing there when she was 23 and pregnant and terrified, lying to her parents, meeting my father, losing the baby — and her friend asked her if she had told me all of this.  How scared she must have been.  How alone she must have felt. “Then heading up here to Minneapolis when you were so young and I knew no one.”

I listened to her and marveled at the question — as if I hadn’t been raised on these stories as if they were my mother’s milk.

“It is amazing” my mother said “that we are here.”

 

 

Walking the Line: Privacy in Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction

“We can think of the essay as the short form of nonfiction, having its own special intensity and requirements, as the short story is the short form of fiction.  Not all fiction is literary fiction, and not all nonfiction is literary, either.  But some is.” — Annie Dillard from the Introduction of the Best American Essays of 1988

November 14th

A text, one that I’d really been waiting to receive for a number of years, came Saturday.  Since the arrival of the text and the subsequent fall-out I’ve been forced to revisit my own ideas about writing, about privacy, about the difference between having the courage to stand within the frame of your own narrative and conversely, claiming bits of narrative for you own at the risk of misappropriating it.

What I take away from this experience is what I’ve long suspected about the genre of memoir/non-fiction — that those who enter into their own stories, and steer them — run the risk of upsetting the apple cart, and I’ll tell you apples are all over the floor  here, regardless of the care with which I thought I crafted my thoughts — Blood Signs never was, or rarely was, a place where I just tossed things into the ether.  These were things that had been mulling and spinning;  things I had been sitting with for some time.  I always knew the repercussions of the telling. I was reminded of the aspects of mindfulness and right speech — and for days now I’ve sat wrestling with question of how you can write personal nonfiction without harm — if its possible — how many writers, after all, don’t write their parents’ stories until their death? But what of the sisters, the brothers, the people with whom you share the narrative?  There is a way to do this — to keep it centered somehow, ever centered on your own lens — and requires a kind of ruthless self-reflection that I’m still working on.

A few people who know me through the blog world — and personally as well — have asked me how this new blog will change — will it affect my writing? My ability to write?

It will change some of its content, but not all; What I know is that for the first time in four years — since my struggles with infertility — I found myself trying to muffle my own sobs in my laundry room as Z played steps away from me — and the sobs were not about being ‘discovered’ because I understood the risks of having an openly accessible only vaguely anonymous blog — but rather I was sobbing at the thought of losing this space, this “writing ground” as a friend so eloquently put it, and I’m sure, with some amount of shame — for I’ve always felt so deeply responsible for people’s pain even when I wasn’t the cause of it — let alone when I was.  (I was the child in elementary school who burned with shame when the teacher admonished the entire class for something one unnamed student had done — I hadn’t done it — but I still felt my face go hot — let alone the kind of physical illness that I feel if I know I’ve hurt someone else.)

I asked myself why did I have to write out in the public — why not just write in a journal as I had for so many years — or open my long-abandoned Scrivener application and work on my novel — what was it about this medium that I was grieving for?

The component, of course, is community — connection, as Melissa said on her blog once — it was like sending out a message in a bottle — or that first transmission into space — and someone calls back from the darkness.

In 1998 my family stood in a crowd of people in an art studio on the University of Montana campus — the art students had been doing replicas of great works of art — half-finished paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens — and I read a short-story based on my Aunt’s madness.  I wrote about a woman who hits a deer on her arrival home to her family’s cottage after her sister’s release from a mental institution — the narrator, believe it or not, is dealing with infertility (years before I would realize it really would be my story) — and she’s dealing with her mother’s denial of her sister’s illness as her sister paces the cottage and the scenes are rife with tension — my family sat and listened and the room erupted in applause after I’d finished.

There were things I could say in the guise of fiction — and no matter what permission I’d been granted, I wonder if these truths are something I can really utter aloud to a standing room. I am referring solely to my material about my family of origin here; I am clearer about the other material …

I just don’t know yet.

There are practical matters — I’d like to have separate rooms in this blog for separate things — that I can add to as one adds to your blog — with new pages for each entry.  This may be messy for awhile, but as we know —  life is messy.

I started with that Dillard quote because my intention is to keep writing, and continuing to come to the page — with an eye to craft as well as self-reflection.

I found this quote from William Nicholson, the writer who wrote the screenplay for Shadowlands (about CS Lewis)

“These are books that plunge unashamed into the muddy waters of meaning, and flounder their way, sometimes ridiculously, towards Big Answers. I love books that make me cry out, ‘But I’ve asked that too! I’ve felt that too!’ In my play about C.S.Lewis, Shadowlands, I gave Lewis the line, ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ That has been my own experience. It’s through books that people I’ve never met have reached out to me, saying, ‘This is what matters most to me. Does it matter to you too?’ This feeds something very different to the appetite for entertainment. It feeds, I suppose, the hunger for meaning.”