Friday, March 21, 2014

Prompt: I Am

I'm in the dressing room, trying on wings, halos, horns, fangs.

I am the rooms of my house and their ghosts and their graves and their inhabitants, borrowing bodies.

I am the girl watching herself run wild and free across the meadow on the television set while eating cheese puffs and sour patch kids on the couch.

I am in the cross hairs of maiden and crone, as predicted by the ceremony my mother held in her backyard when she turned 50 and I turned 21 while her neighbor, Ed the Trucker, watched from his back fence.

I am the stack of unsorted papers growing on my desk like rings inside a tree, but faster.

I am finding a little more freedom in a little more structure.

I am the first flash of connection between head and heart and hand.

I am not sure the frame always fits the painting.

I am in search of God not Church.

I am the one who stayed and the one who, despite the blood contract, the unspoken agreement sworn to forever, got up and walked away.

I am the text my husband sent while eavesdropping on a conversation at the Jewish Community Center: "After 50 years, wife and I are starting to understand each other."

I am the phone call I make to him ten minutes later to make sure he's still there 13 years after impact.

I am Mary Magdalene texting Judah.

I am the whale that forgot to spit out Jonah.

I am the senior citizens in Fit and Fab shaking their booties in slacks and sweaters.

I am the boat motors covered in snow on the picnic table, disemboweled from their boats.

I am the yoga pose just out of reach, the one the body found instead.

I am changing even as I stab at the page with words woefully under-equipped to describe how.

I am the baby tooth waiting under the pillow for her fairy, the wisdom tooth evicted from her childhood home.

I am the face in the mirror that says, "I know you. You're alright. Yes, you can stay."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Narrative Model: Inhabiting the Dangerous and Beautiful Landscape of Mary Chiaramonte

Old Love Like Light, Acrylic on Birch Panel
June 2013

I first met Mary Chiaramonte when I was asked to write about her show, In The Land of the Strangers, for my blog in February 2012. Her work hooked me instantly. I've never had a fine arts vocabulary and I've given up on the language of literary criticism completely but I know a good story and a beautiful body of work when I see it. In a stroke of luck entirely my own, Mary was willing to barter a creative nonfiction class for a drawing I helped envision. In this I was doubly blessed. I got to imagine a land of danger and beauty in which I was the central character (the narrative in my head illustrated, finally!) and I got to hear her, disturbing, lush, gorgeous terrifying landscapes and characters drawn with words. As a bonus, one afternoon in the late spring she laid me out on the ground between her house and the woods (where she regularly chases down and photographs coyotes) posing my arms and hair this way and that for a painting. Within a few weeks, Mary had completed both pieces, confirming the grass-is-greener assumption I love to cling to, that masterpieces in the realm of art are faster, easier and more fun to create than any kind of writing. 

"No way," she was quick to assure me. "I didn't just whip this out. I sweated and cried and painted til my fingers bled (blood, sweat and tears.)"  But still, I like to imagine that while I was at my desk wrestling down the creative process, shredding my guts for a story, agonizing over a plot or line of dialogue, trying to allow my voice as a narrator to live on the page without a steady stream of doubt and second guesses-- that while I continued to navigate the complicated and sometimes treacherous terrain of a wife and mother and woman who lives with addiction and sometimes want to overthrow every single thing that is good-- Mary blinked, waved her magic wand and created me in a way I would love to be seen, in a way that I would love to see myself. 

Because both pieces feel like an interior world made real, drawn from the outside in, short cuts that tunnel past the periphery and straight through to the world of story. Will I remain asleep on the frozen ground clutching reeds in the snow as above or watchful and submerged in a mountain lake encircled by snakes as below? Will I wake up, come to, swim to shore, arise from slumber, save myself or be saved? Do danger and risk arise from the landscapes I inhabit or the choices I make that keep me there? I have to work these answers out for myself, but Mary's work poses all the right questions. As my favorite art does, whatever medium it takes. The drawing graces my writing room and the painting will hang on a wall of the Eric Schindler Gallery for a show that opens this week, on Valentine's Day. Originally, I was going to write a post about the fine art of fighting or learning to love myself or the idolatry of chocolate and roses or the myth of the brave knight on the white horse, but on this occasion I find that art speaks louder, and more beautifully, than words. 

The Valley, pencil, July 2013

           "New, slippery, lithe and young, the chorus we wrote that went unsung."
                                                         --Mary Chiaramonte 

"Love Song: New Paintings and Drawings by Mary Chiaramonte"
Opening: Friday, February 14, 7-9 pm
Show runs through March 8th.
2305 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA
Gallery Hours: Wed-Sat, 11 to 5pm

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

I don't want to be rich, skinny or famous.


And not to the extent to where I don't want what I do have: ample thighs, a creatively stitched together life and a vibrant local community.

New Year's was always my favorite holiday and not just because I loved stumbling face first into the gutter with my best dress on. Because I did! I loved the wandering, stumbling, reckless, drunken adventure that replicated so many other nights of the year...but with semi-high heels and glitter! Until I had to wake up the next morning.

Wishing that I was a new person in a new place surrounded by new people with a new personality and new clothes and a new face and a new brain and a new plan to act out that would make me rich! skinny! and famous!

On New Year's Day, no matter how hungover I was or how bad the other days of the year were, the opportunity to turn over a new leaf in a brand spankin' new calendar made me tingle. 1/1 was an annual opportunity to reinvent myself, start fresh, clear the slate, pretend a large part of the night or year before had never really happened and wallllllah! Everlasting eternal over the top happiness. It was such a hopeful 24 hours.

But then 1/2 would roll along and I'd be right where I left off on 12/31 but worse because I was 3 days older and even further away from achieving my very fucked up goals for success.

I'm not sure exactly when or how the idea that I can be who I am and like it, that I do fit into this package that is my life and my skin began to sink in, but I know I can't find the exact moment in any of the pages of my calendar. Maybe it was around the time I started looking at my addictions (getting rid of a few, trading in some for others) or when I began to put in the slow, hard work required to build the stuff of life that has brought me actual joy-- the very stuff I overlooked when I had my eye on the top rung of the imaginary ladder. The day in, day out, 365 day-a-year work required to acquire bylines and best friends and more black in the bank than red. Taking more creative than destructive risks. Asking for help-- and accepting it. Revealing my shame and mess and tangled knots rather than pushing them down and wrapping them up. Because that stuff, the stuff I used to snub-or fear- kicks ass. Every day of the year.

The truth is I still wish I could squeeze into a tiny pair of skinny jeans and find my flawless face plastered all over People Magazine for small portions of the day, but not all of it. Right now I would rather find ways to actually love my actual self than invent ways for people I don't know to think they love who it looks like I am. But that's just today. We'll see what tomorrow brings when it gets here.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Unedited: A Series of Snapshots From My Journal

            Yesterday I had an episode with my book that nearly convinced me to shut it down. If it had been a terminal patient I would have pulled the plug. The only thing I still liked about it was printing it out and fastening it together with those mega file clips from Office Max. Everything else filled me with despair and loathing. This is the same book that a few months ago I knew to be a bestseller. The only thing that brought me back from the edge was drinking generic apple juice out of Pumpkin Dreams mugs my mom got at the thriftstore for 15 cents, orange pumpkins and black cats painted by an old geezer that the orange cardboard boasts to be one of our greatest American Folklorist. That, and decorating the backyard with severed hands from the Dollar Store. My cousin calls Five and Below the Dollar Store for rich people. The two foam swords she found there have been Henry’s favorite birthday presents so far. For the 5th or 95th time I thought that I should be homeschooling and growing root vegetables in my backyard instead of wallowing in despair with my manuscript. Would I be happy then?

My 3rd grade son’s parent teacher conference has abruptly transformed me into one of those mothers. The pushers, the fretters, the freaker-outers. ME. My son’s teacher, Mrs. X, fast paced and gorgeous, is in her mid-twenties and has more energy than a 6 month old golden retriever. “Your son,” she told us, “is very bright. He’s making straight A’s. But he’s figured out how to do only what’s required of him and nothing more. He’s figured out the minimum requirement.”
            “Oh God,” said my husband who looked like he hadn’t gotten a haircut in 3 years. “That’s all I ever heard in school. That I wasn’t living up to my potential. That’s me to a T.”
            “And how old were you when you stopped doing the minimum requirement?” asked Mrs. M, staring at him pointedly.
            “What time is it now?” asked my husband who dropped out of college, is half way through renovating our kitchen, plumbing the bathroom and digging out a new driveway. He looked at his imaginary watch.
            And there I was, terrified for the future of my bright boy who is currently in the 3rd grade making straight A’s. All the boys I’ve ever loved before him—totally genius level, fucked up under achievers flashed before my eyes. How do I get my son to want to do more than the minimum requirement when that’s all we do ourselves? When he’s already announced he’d rather be homeschooled and live on an island off the grid never paying taxes? The answer, I think, as I settle back down into this moment is to love him and do nothing else, nothing else at all. Nothing else is required.

Today there was something about the cold and the light and the cast of trees in the afternoon and the quiet and the loneliness of that quiet. I felt a burning need to make things cheery, to have the feeling of a fire in the stove, a hearth, I desperately wanted a hearth and I didn’t know how to create the feeling of having a hearth on the outside of myself, much less on the inside without drinking something, swallowing something, putting something in my mouth to raise the bar on the thermometer and brighten the wick. It useda woulda been whiskey or wine and I’d already had coffee, tea and hot chocolate—I couldn’t drink one thing more and then a friend suggested instead of triple or quadruple fisting it I take the time to breathe. He further suggested that I think of the most loving thing to do for myself that I could and I burst into tears that exploded out of me like logs going up in flame and I wept for how many people I truly miss and old cold afternoons long gone filled with people I may or will never see again and I cried and cried, even on the way to the bus stop, grateful it was mostly redneck dads who wouldn’t ask how I was feeling and then suddenly I felt better and my eyes were clear and the day was bright again and I hugged my son and walked my dog and I did have one more cup of coffee with hot chocolate mixed in—but that’s just because I was already feeling better.

I felt like a different person on the way up here, like I’m changing. I thought “This is the person I would have been,” but here it is the person I am. I stopped and took pictures, turned the radio off. Missed my son and called him. Felt the intensity of music and driving down country roads the way I always feel it, so that I think I may explode but another mile passes and another and I keep on living. This is when I feel the passing of time most—with a soundtrack and a road. I miss everyone I’ve ever loved and even the ones I didn’t love. And now there are so many different kinds of bird song—up high and then down low and then the bellows of the cows across the river. I used to think only people with no internal world listened to birds but now I think the opposite is true. I’m glad I took a walk down to the river this morning—saw the fog and the trees and the mountains and trains and bridges and the tumbling rural countryside of Virginia that gives back to me a part of my childhood self I had at my grandparent’s house and all those summers camping with my dad in the Blue Ridge that made me feel at least 50% country girl even though I grew up in houses and apartments in the city and the suburbs.

 I feel about our writing day the way I felt about the Ropes Course when I was 17 and took an Outdoor Adventure class at the community college with S. A mixture of anticipation and terror and in the end there was too much bad weather and our trip was cancelled but we did get to go camping and spelunking. I never did take that plunge off the cliff with the rope but in some ways I may as well have for all the thinking I did about it in advance. And now it’s time to take the writing plunge again and I feel like I’m at the start of a river or a road that splinters off in a million different directions and I could choose any one of so many and what if I choose the wrong one? All of the writing teachers say that in the end it’s about trusting your own voice, following your own nose, not living in the Hell of Second Guesses and Self Doubt so I’ll try to remember that as I ascend the cliffs of writing today. I thought on my walk, if I don’t have the patience to sew the first stitch when presented with a dress form how will I make the lines out, one at a time, for a book?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

One Head of the Hydra


          When I was little, I held 12 step recovery meetings with my stuffed animals. Buffalo Bear and Papa Smurf were trying hard to be good while the long skinny strung out looking ventriloquist, Charlie McCarthy, tried again and again to quit smoking. By the time I was 8, I’d called my best friend and told her I was going to be her sponsor. I’d grown up in recovery rooms and conventions halls with coloring books, crayons and a determination never, ever to be like my parents or their weird group of friends who talked about resentments and wrote out gratitude lists. At 13 I wrote an article for a local teen rag about how I was going to break the cycle of addiction, at least in my own family. The buck stopped here! I was “creative” and I didn’t want my creativity to be confused with getting drunk or high. Less than a year later, I found myself on the floor of a band apartment downtown swigging Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill from the bottle, wondering when and how I could do it again.
               From that night, my drinking progressed. I learned how to sneak out, which convenience stores sold to minors—or which adults hanging out in front of convenience stores would sell to minors. Drinking felt as natural as diving off a cliff into deep, cold water when you’ve been just a little too hot, too exposed and too uneasy with your land legs for too long. I stopped feeling like a nerdy, awkward freak and began to feel like my best self—daring, flashy—and whatever else might pass for cool.

              In college, drinking became my major, my thesis, my religion, my revelation, my final project. I was stopped drunk driving but managed to recite the alphabet backwards (something I can’t do sober!) and was let go. One Easter I caught my head on fire trying to get into a bath with candles and a bottle of Jim Beam, but was sort of able to hide the burns with a what-was-left-of-my-hair combover. I did all of the things a girl trying to live life with instruction from a few cases of Manischewitz, Mad Dog 20-20, Wild Irish Rose, Carlo Rossi, bottom shelf vodka, any kind of whiskey and boxes of cheap red wine would do. The list is long: use your imagination! Between the ages of 20 and 23, I tore my way through a couple of countries, states and boyfriends before landing back home, broken and broke, wondering how I’d gotten myself into yet another Jerry Springer/ Greek Tragedy hijinks. I decided to try therapy.

“You could try a meeting,” my mother suggested. “They’re cheaper than therapy.”
“But do you have to think you’re an alcoholic?” I asked.
“You can wonder,” she said.

With just the right amount of ambiguity, I went to my first meeting—without  stuffed animals or crayons. I picked up a white chip with every intention of giving it back. This could not be me—or my life. I was different. I was special! I was wrong.

That was 15 years ago today. I haven’t had a drink or done ANY recreational drugs since that Friday morning in October when I walked into a church basement and not only felt surrounded by familiar faces because I knew them, but because I’d earned my own seat among them. The ride since has been wild and bumpy with switchbacks, trap doors, surprises, a million characters, stories, side-stories, diversions, discoveries and journeys I couldn’t have begun to imagine—even as far out there as I went trying to find the world and God and love and myself at the bottom of a bottle.  

Since getting sober, I have done my best to direct my risk-taking behavior towards positive-artistic-creative kinds of risks rather than getting-drunk-and-hitchhiking-in-the-middle-of-the-night kinds of risks. As sure as I was that not drinking would lead me straight to the convent (even though I’m Jewish), sainthood has yet to happen—thank God. The good news and the bad news now, is that for better or worse I have the chance to feel all of my feelings. And that has its pitfalls! Who wants to feel everything? Addiction is like a hydra—chop off one head and two (or 768) more sprout in its place. I have an addictive personality that will latch on to anything. And has. And will. Don't try to take away my other vices! I quit coffee last spring and it was the worst 36 hours of my life. A lot of the time, my smaller self is the bigger part of my self. My first thoughts are rarely divine. But I have a better chance of showing up and participating in my life—without puking!—than I did before. I have a better chance of cultivating my intuition and my relationships and my writing than I did before. I get to remember what happened last night—even if I still can't remember where I put my keys. 

I keep my own gratitude lists now—at the top of which is the chance to show who and what I am, even if exposing that soft, tender underbelly is more terrifying than jumping off any of the cliffs I threw myself off before. Over the years I've found that turning lights on in a room to illuminate everything is scarier than turning them all off, but it's far more productive. In fact, it's the only way I've been able to see the hydra-- much less attempt to slay it, one head at a time.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

In Memory of Timothy Scott McClellan, 8/2/59 - 9/13/13

I first met Timothy fifteen years ago in a 12 step fellowship, but got to know him better more recently when he began taking my Creative Nonfiction classes at the Black Swan Bookstore. More often than not Timothy didn’t follow my prompts but chose to forge ahead on his own path of truly creative writing instead. Early on he wrote a thrilling noir about following someone into Jackson Ward only to reveal that he was in fact the one being followed. We were all on the edge of our seats. “When did this happen, Timothy?” I asked trying to get a sense of the time frame he’d just captured.  “Oh, I just made it all up,” he answered with a big laugh. It became clear to me then I was working with a different kind of animal altogether.

“Timothy’s writing was outrageous but exciting to listen to,” said Hope, another writer in our class. “I remember him writing about getting back in the dating scene and "accidentally" having a tryst with a senior citizen.  He wrote like an artist in big broad strokes which felt abstract but at the end was real or concrete.” 

Said Sara, “I recall him reading with a booming voice and lots of intonation for his characters. Before reading each piece he would seem skeptical at first, then dive into the world he spat out for the last ten minutes and end with a triumphant, "Fuck... what did i just write?!

 “I was struck by the self-conscious narration,” said David. “He knew he had an audience who was eating it up... but it didn't stop him from writing some really vulnerable stuff. I have a pretty good recollection of the tone and the enjoyment we all felt when his writing was cooking and there were no taboos and inhibitions. My guess is that he raised the bar for all of us. I know that I wrote better than usual in those classes. If just for that, I'm grateful to have known him.”   

Of his writing about his own life, Timothy said, and I quote:

“This work is my personal narrative. It is not about discovering the truth or accurately chronicling the events of my life. This is not about getting it right. This is my story about how I have experienced the world tethered to a rather crazy and self-absorbed group of people. They will have opinions and deep disagreements about what these pages contain and how they are portrayed. That's fine. They can write their own fucking book.”

In life, as in my writing class, Timothy constructed his own rules and his own framework for living. He was the sensitive tough guy who could pull off more silver hoop earrings than a whole VW bus full of hippie girls. He was the Zen Buddhist who could turn the word fuck into a prayer, wedding the unholy with the divine in a string of curses that would make a sailor blush. He was the devil-may-care drunk who’d been sober 29 years but still knew how to live wild, to live hard, to love big, to occupy every bit of space in a room. Timothy was a storyteller who could captivate a room one night and throw down his notebook mid-sentence the next. He was the lone wolf who secretly loved to be surrounded by his pack.

Timothy loved to make fun of the way I parked my VW bug, with just the right mixture of disdain and endearment. Forever more when I park badly I’ll think of him. He reminded me of buffaloes and bulls, big burly beasts with soft fur and tender skin. He gave good hugs and big smiles. He had a beard big enough to speak for itself and a motorcycle jacket wider than the road he lived to ride. Timothy had big hands but only part of one thumb. He was accident prone and blundering in some ways, gentle and careful in others. He shared war stories and epic tales of pain and survival like badges, like memories, like jokes, like prayers.  

Timothy was an example of a man who by no means should have been useful or helpful in civilized society that somehow managed to become both useful and helpful in civilized society. He used his rebellious, antiestablishmentarianism- nature for the good—through his art, his writing, his job and his service in 12 step recovery rooms all over the city. He was living proof that you don’t have to become a saint or sacrifice yourself to the life of the glum lot to conquer your additions, to trudge the road of happy destiny. He walked on the wild side, sober. He gave back, sober. He showed up, stood tall, carried a big stick, and forged his own path through a knotted wood, sober, helping others along the way. He’d made peace with much of his path and his dear ex-wife Helen whom he considered a good friend. Timothy loved Boo, his dogs, a good story, a good turn of phrase, a good friend, a good linguica sausage and a good motorcycle. And he loved his beautiful girlfriend Ruth Ann who brought him worlds of happiness and joy in the last year of his life. And I feel sure that he loves that we’re all here together now in his name celebrating his big, glorious fucking life.