Thursday, July 17, 2014

The New Normal Looks Kind of…Normal.

Each year as I approach my birthday I look around to take stock of the changes I have created or endured. So far this year I have not worked on a cruise ship, had a baby, backpacked through Europe, modeled in the nude, detoxed from drugs and alcohol or tried to overhaul every single thing about life as I know it.

           But this week, I did call to have a ding in my windshield repaired before it turned into a cracked-out emergency—and no one had even thrown a pumpkin through it. After that, I scheduled a check-up even though all of my limbs are firmly attached, my head is not on fire and I only have a low-grade sense that I will die…eventually. I asked my husband to help me pick out some new running shoes. (What?! Did the word RUNNING come out of my face?!) To top it all off, I asked my family to have a sit down dinner. At the table. 

Clearly, these changes are more of the tip-toeing down the graduated steps into the pool one inch at a time rather than cannon-balling off the diving board variety. So incremental, I almost haven’t noticed anything's different until bam! suddenly I am underwater swimming through the legs of strangers. Or, as the case may be trying to get my family to sit down together at the table for dinner.

The impact has been just as profound.

At our first family dinner, my husband announced that he had eaten lunch five minutes before and that he was not hungry. "Not" and "hungry" rarely if ever show up together in my personal lexicon but that’s another blog-post. However, he obliged me by sitting at the table with a glass of water, enduring my pronouncements about the importance of togetherness. When I reached out to hold hands for grace, my son looked at me as if I had asked him to climb on the table, beat his chest like a gorilla and toss about his own feces, possibly an activity he would have preferred. “WE ARE GOING TO HAVE A NICE SIT DOWN FAMILY DINNER AND WE ARE GOING TO LIKE IT,” I screamed as they stared on in wonder at the new-super-human-mom-wife-woman before them.

 Growing up, my mother did cook and we did say grace, but most often from a table cloth on the floor because all of the surfaces in the house were too cluttered for plates. On the evenings I was with my dad, we either circled a loop of fast food chains or, at home, ate with our TV dinners on our laps on one of the couches he assembled from parts in the alley while watching Mr. T. Though I have had thousands of beautiful family dinners during and since that time, for some reason these are the ones that have engraved themselves most deeply in my neural coding.

Even though dinner with proper plates and utensils and topics of conversation was a bit bizarre the first night, we did it again the second. My husband cooked. And it was just a little less weird. In fact, it was absolutely wonderful. It was as much of a marvel as the other people on the Greyhound cross country or the Euro-rail  from Prague to Budapest. In the right light, my own family contains as much mystery and intrigue as the Seven Wonders of the World. 

            For the first time in my life I'd rather prevent than invite drama. However, I have noticed that the more “low-key” I want to be, the more high-maintenance I actually am. The longer I stay sober the more work it takes to stay that way—not just physically but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I used to pride myself on my ability to roll out of bed--or sleeping bag--and stumble into the next adventure (read: ill-advised drunken escapade) all fancy-free in the clothes I’d slept in the night before. I was always ready to go! Now I require a full teeth-brushing, clothes that don’t smell like the sewer, some form of exercise, a decent helping of healthy food and no less than 17-87 interactions with any number of 12-step programs ending in the letter A.

This year as I walk-- not stumble-- into 39, I have found myself wanting more family interaction and less performance art, more day trips into the country and less surreal dream sequences through the bowels of the underworld. I hope to God I always have both, but for now I want to spend as much time as I can witnessing and appreciating and discovering the world that is right in front of my face, the world I would be an idiot to miss.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

Brook Road Academy Commencement Speech, June 2014

First of all, thank you so much for asking me to be here today. I consider the opportunity to speak to a class of graduating seniors who have managed to survive the entire length of high school, along with the parents and teachers and staff who have survived along with them, right up there with speaking to Oprah or God.

Thinking back on my own graduation, I honestly can’t remember if there was a speaker or not. I can’t remember what it felt like to walk across a stage or receive my diploma. I do remember the same feeling of relief that comes after finishing a very, very, very long book. I remember that I finally knew more than my mother and that I had at last achieved immortality. I remember believing with conviction that some combination of a new hair color (purple, red or Mountain Dew) and getting as far away from home as possible would turn me into the person I’d always wanted to become.

I was halfway right. Dying your hair the color of Mountain Dew does change everything.

Of course, what I wanted to change was the world but I did not yet know how to really change myself. Even then, however, I knew what I loved—words and stories—and like the oil that kept the temple fire burning much longer than it should have, that little fire stayed alive inside of me too, despite all the things I did that could have put it out. And we’re not talking a little drip here, but full-on fire extinguishers. I know you guys are all perfect angels, but I was rebellious and experimental. What would I have wanted someone to tell me at my own high school graduation? What could I have heard?

I could have heard that it was going to get better and that the people who had told me that the high school years were the best of my life were lying. You are about to graduate. And I mean it when I say congratulations. This is no small accomplishment. It appears that Brook Road Academy is an excellent school with the finest teachers around, but please, don’t believe anyone who tells you that at 17 and 18 you have already reached the pinnacle of your life and that it’s all a slow miserable decline from here. You have not lived out your glory years which will end this week with your coursework. While I hope that this has been a challenging fulfilling time in your life, your best years, I believe, are yet to come.

When I was in elementary school I played a game with my girlfriends called “Fresh Out of College.”  In our elaborate game of make-believe, we had perfect jobs, perfect boyfriends and perfect hair because, guess what? Once we had that degree we would live happily ever after, amen.  

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way, like so many other people I know that receiving a piece of paper, no matter which one it is you have set your sights on-- a high school diploma or a college or graduate or masters degree or a driver’s license and registration or the deed to a home or a marriage license or a birth certificate—none of these are a guarantee for happiness. Buddha, Jesus, God, Krishna and the Tooth Fairy won’t come down and sign a lifetime-of-bliss warrantee on the dotted line. Your high school diplomas are wonderful landmarks on the maps of your life, but they are not the final destination. In fact, I have found there is no destination on any map or any other piece of paper that can tell me whether or not I have really, finally, actually arrived, although recently having my face made into a shrinky dink and hung in an art show that took place in a local bathroom did come close.

When I was 23, I came home to Richmond after travelling through New York, Italy, Colorado, Arkansas and Alaska. I was nearly broke and felt broken. So far I had successfully used my expensive liberal arts degree to wait tables, scrub toilets and vacuum hairballs out of hallways. I was a failure.

It was a beautiful spring day but I sobbed into my pillow with my mom and my cat Felecia at my side. “Mom,” I wailed. “I have no money! I can’t get a job! I am the biggest loser in the whole entire history of the world!”

“Honey,” my mom said back. “Look at Felecia.” My cat purred next to me like an Egyptian Queen, licking luxuriantly between each of her outstretched toes. “Does she have a job? How much money is in her bank account?

“None,” I had to admit. Felecia yawned up at us and then settled in for a cat-nap. I had to admit, being so divine day after day must have been absolutely exhausting.

“That’s right,” said my mother. “She makes no money and spends her day doing next to nothing. And she’s perfect just the way she is. You are a human being, honey, not a human doing.” And then my mother went on to tell me, as she had before, that my worth was not determined by how much money I made or the line items on my resume. And for some reason on this day I was finally able to hear her.

Learning to believe that I’m OK just as I am, that I’m not the sum of a list of numbers or grades---that I can trust and love myself no matter what kind of job or money or friends or clothes or car or husband I have---has been, I think, some of the biggest ongoing work of my lifetime. It’s inner work, work that is hard to see or measure or evaluate or grade. But it’s this inner work that has allowed the outer work to happen.

What I do has begun to come into alignment with who I am, but this did not happen because the road was straight and smoothly paved and I drove a cherry-red two door Dodge Challenger. Driving five hundred dollar Hondas with no windshield wipers, misreading directions, stumbling out of the car and scraping my knees on the pavement, flat tires, construction zones, speeding tickets, high tolls, traffic jams and even traffic court and driving school have all been elements my path has been made of. I’ve been rejected from schools and literary magazines, laid off and passed over for jobs I thought I had to have.

But as Samuel Beckett famously wrote: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."  

Accepting my failures, leaning into my weaknesses, learning from my mistakes, and taking the circuitous, bumpy route, it turns out, has been the charted course towards a life beyond my wildest dreams, one which is truly beginning to happen, thorns and warts and fender benders and all.

I am now lucky enough to have a job where I spend my days listening to other people tell their stories while also having the opportunity to write my own. I have come to believe that the power of sharing who you are, whether that manifests as a poem or a song or a letter or a garden or a meal or an invention or an equation or a computer program is a better gift to the world than a stack of credentials behind your name or the total dollar amount in your 401K. 

I would like to share with you now a poem that says so beautifully things I want to know that I’m still inclined to forget.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

So, right now, whether you are going to on to a big college or a little college or no college at all, whether you are interested in words, stories, social justice, animals, science, the environment, documentaries, car engines, mechanics, computer engineering, video games, internet privacy, censorship, Africa or Kling-on, whether you intend to wear a blue collar or a white one, to work with your head or your hands, I hope you learn to make the big decisions with your heart. And I hope you know, as hard as it is to believe, that each of you right now are just as perfect as my cat Felecia.

The best years of your life are not over. Your story doesn’t end when you walk out of these doors. This chapter simply must close to make way for the next. May your best years be yet to come, may the force be with you, and good luck.

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?