How is This Possible? Coincidences and Other Disasters

CANjuliahandscrosstopSI spend a lot of my time howling the cosmic yawp into the blue beyond. It looks, to mortal eyes, like I’m making lunch and beating a deadline and running errands and remembering to put out the trash cans. But I assure you, a goodly portion of every day is given over to caterwauling (mostly in my inside voice but not always) on the WHY of everyday living. The WHY of how did we get here? The WHY of how can X be happening?

I’m old enough to know better. I am hitting that midpoint in life. I have successfully raised 4.9 kids (just 1 year left on #5). We have a retirement plan (sort of). We own our cars (not new ones, God, no!). We’ve traveled around the world a bit (more when single than together) and we’re not on our first marriage (to each other, yes. In total, no.).

So you can bet that I don’t believe in fairy tales, magick, the Virgin birth. I do, however, believe in Something. It’s just too random that my husband and I met when we were both at the nadir of our love lives. I find Something in the spectacle of my own resurrection after that hairy divorce when I was a shadow of my ex, a skeleton of who I was and had yet to become, up to now, when I feel fully fledged and mighty as Aphrodite on steroids.

I have worked as a journalist for some 30 years now, writing poetry and short stories and a novel or two between times, trying to write the one story that was true. Reaching for Hemingway’s One True Thing. I have almost had it once or twice. Missed it by *that* much.

I was talking with my very elderly Aunt Doris about four years ago, telling her about my new story idea. I want to do a sort of “Diary of Anne Frank,” but a fictionalized version. Tell that teen girl’s story in a different way. Be in her shoes. Tell it sideways. Something like that. I told my aunt this on the phone, knowing I would see her the next day, and she encouraged me, as she always did, with alacrity. “Oh, that sounds wonderful,” she said. The next day I drove 70 miles to her house to see her, but she was gone. Still breathing, but the essence of her had slipped down, underwater, to where I couldn’t reach her anymore, and though I talked and talked to her, she wasn’t really there. We never spoke again.

So we held her memorial and sprinkled her ashes and cleaned her house, and my mother handed me a heavy old box of letters and journals. I took them home for later, feeling heavy myself, and wondering at the why, the how, the WTF of it all. We cleaned her house, and I brought home her desk, her martini glasses, her car. I slipped a ring onto my finger that had once adorned hers. I had her glasses remade with my prescription and one day opened that box. The diaries were there.

A few months later, I began typing up the diaries. I posted them on Twitter and Facebook, talked about it on the radio, made friends and followed trails back some 90 years. I’ve been working on this project for four years now; The Doris Diaries, her words, the diaries of a teen girl. Telling her story in a different way. I’ve slid into her shoes, a little sideways.

I’m not sure of the why. I only know that there’s truth here. I don’t know the right questions to ask, but the answers are somehow here anyway. It’s Something. Something I can’t explain.

 

Fall 2015 Events

Women’s National Book Association

Alameda Reads

North Coast Redwood Writers’ Conference

  • Sept. 18-20: Annual Conference: Reading + two workshops (Social Media for Dummies/Why You Need a Platform; Creative Non-Fiction for Writers: Writing Essays and Reviews)

Banned Books Week

  • Sept. 30, 11 a.m. Reading marathon at Alameda Free Library (Main Branch)

Litquake (San Francisco)

Poetry Reading/Workshop

  • October (date TBA): Teachers and students of Sumiton Christian School, Sumiton, Alabama
  • I’ll be traveling and doing research for a book project and will have my nose in books, maps and libraries in…Alabama!

Book Launch Party

  • Nov. 6, 7 p.m. Alameda Museum. Guest speaker Woody Minor. Champagne. FREE!

 

I Get Anxious

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy husband says I’m a delicate flower, and while, yeah, that’s true, it’s not all that’s true. I have anxiety. I have PTSD. I have issues.

This is not a case of disease-or-malady-of-the-week, a la celiac wannabees, or whatever Madison Avenue tells us this month is wrong with us (You need oat bran! You need Vitamin E! You need aloe!).

I really, really get anxious. I take a little pill each morning which cuts out the crazy part of anxiety — the part that screams all day long in my ear WE’RE DOOMED. YOU F*CKED UP AGAIN. EVERYONE HATES YOU. DIE DIE DIE. And for this, I am truly grateful to Big Pharma for coming up with a chemical that counteracts the panic in my brain.

There’s no need to panic. But my brain/body panics a lot. Count yourself grateful that you’re not me. Because it is beyond sucky to get into your car, and then be unable to leave the driveway because you suddenly had a vision of yourself hurtling down the highway and crashing headlong into another vehicle, and the impact accordions the front of the car, I am crushed, I can’t breathe, I am being squeezed to death, and blip, I actually, truly feel my soul slip free from this dying body. I felt it. It was real. #truestory that never actually happened.

There’s no need to visualize my daughters’ bodies severed under the rumbling wheels of the kiddie train at the zoo. It’s unnecessary to waste minutes or hours waiting for the earthquake that will flatten the house on top of me. I can feel the roof coming down. I can taste the grit in my teeth. I can see the meteor coming with my name on it. I think these things. I have done so for years.

But usually my anxiety is of a lighter shade of freak: I don’t want to go to a party. I don’t want to be on the freeway for an hour. I don’t want to go out and face the eyes that feel like a thousand needles or the smiles that sometimes seem like bared teeth. I don’t want to have to explain myself. I used to force myself to go, and ended the day feeling exhausted, broken, unable to string words together, my skin erupting in hives and my hands shaking with the palsy of terror.

But I don’t make myself “be good” anymore. I don’t perform because other people might be disappointed. I know how it feels to be kind to myself and how it feels when I’m not.

I didn’t go to an event yesterday that I had wanted to cover, that I’d looked forward to writing about, because when it came time to go, my inner animal said no. It didn’t feel safe or wise. (And it was totally safe — a gathering of women to celebrate other women heroines. Utterly, completely safe as can be.) I took care of my inner fear-bot with books and ice-cold raw cucumbers and pineapple chunks, with a lemon freezer bar and a nice walk around the block. I didn’t die a grisly death and no meteors hit me. I feel better today. I’m writing now, aren’t I?

You know the positive part of this? I write good stories. I make my imaginary stories feel real. I can use this power for good. Most days that’s what happens. But sometimes I drop out because it’s too much. I curl into an armadillo ball and breathe until the baddies go away. (By the way, if you also suffer from anxiety, try tapping for anxiety; it’s pretty amazing. It’s free, it’s drug-free, and you can watch it on the Internet. Plus, it works.)

Don’t take it personally if I don’t show up sometimes. It’s because I can’t. But I’ll show up the next time. Probably.

I am a delicate flower. And it’s OK that you know that about me.

Writing as Though I Had Wings

hand with penI’ve come to that cross-road in a writer’s life where she has to choose between writing what she wants and writing what earns her bread. It might even be one of those modern five-way stoplights where several roads merge and one must decide whether to turn gently to the right, to join the path ahead, or — most alarming of all — veer to the left and go against the traffic, hoping for a break in the rush to slip across. What to do?

And I think I might go for the difficult and risky choice.

This is absolutely one of those moments where, if speaking to young writers, I might say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Because who would counsel a writer to leave off the path toward Easy and instead push forth into the Difficult? You want success? Don’t do this.

But then I think of all the advice given to me, especially in the past few years, about “Follow your bliss,” and “Do what you love.” Let the angels lead you where they will. I think of the quote from poet Mary Oliver, “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbably and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” Angels, again. So, I think, well, maybe I should. Maybe it’s time to chase this.

What is the this? It’s a long story, so to speak: My family history, reaching back into long ago when my people first 1545231_10153695308530455_1715698475_nput foot on American soil. Before it was American. Or after, just a century ago, before two great wars and women’s suffrage and Prohibition. I’m looking at my roots, of getting here, of what was left behind and what they came for, and what they achieved, and what it cost. And whom it cost.

So think of slavery and the Trail of Tears. Think of the British Raj and the Industrial Revolution. Think of the Orphan Train, of blood and bones. And — of healing, atonement, and mercy.

Oh, I don’t know how to write any of it, either. I’ll have to get there and see. But I’m finding myself obsessed with the vision I have for this story, and the possibilities. Maybe I’ll give it a year and see what happens.

Maybe I’ll be afraid of nothing as though I had wings.

Virgin No More (Book Review, Part 2)

2015-08-02 18.08.33I just finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. I read Go Set a Watchman when it first came out last month, and read it before reading the beloved old favorite. And despite all the drama, histrionics and harrumphing by TKAM’s defenders of the holy tract and the way things have always been, I must say, I don’t see the issue. Atticus Finch is a racist. How is that shocking?

Small-town Alabama, in the Great Depression (TKAM) or in the fifties (GSAW), was racist. It’s still quite racist, from what I hear and read. (I’ll be traveling there in October and will give a first-hand account of my experience then.) But so are lots of places in the USA. Racism is still prevalent, pretty much everywhere. I grew up in super liberal Marin County and I learned racist slurs and rhymes. Racism is everywhere. To express shock that the fictional character in a book written about either of those time periods — but especially in the thirties — wasn’t racist seems naive.

Since I don’t have the baggage of having read TKAM a dozen times (or even once) since my adolescence, I certainly don’t have the same attachment to envisioning and sanctifying Atticus Finch in one particular way. But I can relate, to an extent. A set of books I grew up on, The Little House books, has a character, Pa (Charles), based on the author’s real father, who is also just, true and faithful. Always loving to his daughters, always dreaming of a better life. What would I say if Pa had been exposed later as a racist or a man with feet of clay? Would that show me the angst people are feeling now over the loss of their dream-daddy, Atticus? It might.

But that event, in fact, has happened. I have read everything I could find about Laura Ingalls Wilder precisely because I am such a fangirl, and some of that reading has been distinctly eye-opening. Pa was a fly-by-night poet and a dreamer who “married up” to Ma’s social class, and she (a shameless racist herself) had to fight to keep them in one place long enough to get an education for her daughters. Laura’s loving glances at her father, and his returned gaze, have been interpreted as incestuous by some  critics. And the family stories themselves were doctored by Laura’s probably bipolar daughter Rose, a staunch Libertarian (and cofounder of the political movement) who urged Laura to fudge the facts to make a better story.

How did I feel about that? Chagrined, of course, but also not surprised. Stories are stories, and facts are facts. I don’t think it’s possible for this white family in TKAM to have lived in small-town Alabama in the 1930s with a Negro housekeeper and a segregationist society and not be affected. Aunt Alexandra was affected. Uncle Jack, Atticus, not so much. The kids saw color. They didn’t understand the background so much, but they knew there were issues.

In TKAM, Scout and Jem attend church with Calpurnia and are confronted by a black church member who doesn’t want them to attend. At that moment, the children understand fully what it’s like to be excluded on the basis of race. The rest of the church allowing the two white children (of a prominent citizen) to come in and feel welcome shows less openness and more — well, maybe self-preservation. Just as Tom Robinson was doomed from the moment Mayella Ewell saw him passing by and asked him to come chop her firewood or whatever else she wanted — the church couldn’t refuse hospitality to Calpurnia’s employer’s children. Tom couldn’t say no and live; the church membership, despite all appearances of merely being hospitable, also couldn’t say no. That’s how ingrained the racism was.

It seems clear that Atticus is a man of character. He sees injustice in Mayella’s (or her father’s) accusation against Tom. He hates an unfair fight (which is why he stopped using guns as a youth, when it was clear he would kill anything he aimed to shoot). And Atticus is a man of duty — he was assigned the case; he didn’t seek it out. He saw through to the end, as far as he humanly could, that the case got his best work. He is a solid man of his word, and he remains that way through both narratives. In other words, Atticus doesn’t change substantively in TKAM, any more than he has “changed” in GSAW. And the mark of a central character is that he or she changes. The arc of growth is the story. Atticus himself is static in TKAM — and he’s still the same, only older, in GSAW.

So the focus of both stories is Scout — what she sees and knows. She grows up by three years in TKAM and learns that people are multifaceted and not always trustworthy. Her experience of getting to know Boo Radley, of working for the hated Mrs. Dubose, and of seeing Calpurnia in the world (Scout’s house) and at home (Calpurnia’s church) taught her that there is more to most people than meets the eye — a worthy lesson: Don’t judge. Scout, as the adult Jean Louise, has also learned about people, having broadened her horizons in New York City. Coming home, she sees at last how small-minded her neighbors are, her Aunt Alexandra, and even her father. She has changed — and again has to grow and change to accept people (even her social inferior, her fiance Hank) for who they are.

Either way, these are Scout’s stories. This is her arc. Although Harper Lee wrote GSAW first, and her editor set her to rewrite, bringing us TKAM, I don’t think it’s the lesser story. I’m perfectly comfortable with GSAW as a sequel — or even a prequel — for TKAM. I believe they are both necessary and valid, now that they are both out in the world.

I wonder if I could have concluded thusly had I read TKAM first?

Your thoughts?