Friday, May 27, 2011

Bringing My Story to the World Like a Covered Dish at a Potluck

I teach a creative nonfiction class.

At first I was pretty sure people signed up because, as my friends, they didn’t want me taking out loans to buy sunscreen.

Or, because they had nowhere else to go on a Tuesday night or a Thursday morning or a Saturday afternoon.

Or, because they thought it was both cool to hang out in a bookstore and cheaper than therapy.

Or, because like me, they’d finally given up being cynical, hibernating in some hovel alone hunched over an antique typewriter sweating over the first sentence of the great American novel, key by tortured key.

Or, because they believed that truth is stranger than fiction, that the stories they have to tell are as wild, as intimate, as unbelievable as myth, that the bug they stepped on during breakfast is somehow as interesting as Kafka’s cockroach, if only they would give themselves the time and the space to inspect it a little more closely. To write about it, laying it out and turning it over. And not just bugs, but days, stories, lives.

Maybe they come for all of those reasons or none, but why-ever they come, every week I bring them selections of essays by other people who have written the truth in the first person.

Yesterday, for the first time, I brought them writing, not from a book, but from a blog. I found White Girl in Black Face through a friend of a friend in that nether world called Facebook. The essays— "Exposed" and "For Writers Who Have Considered Memoir When the Story is Enuf"---moved me in a get under your skin/can’t put you down/you speak for us all/ kind of way and so I wrote to their author, Meadow Braun, and asked her permission to print them out and pass them around. She graciously said yes. And so we wrote our own versions using Meadow’s last lines as piers from which to jump.

But while Meadow wrote in a compelling and gorgeous way (that I encourage you to read) about why she’s writing her memoir, I wrote about why I want to stop writing mine. And why I’d rather write this instead:

As the cobwebs and rat’s nests in the attic of my life gets cleaned out I have less interest in the stories they once held and more interest in the days they impact now. What was once etched in stone seems fluid now, alchemically changed, impossible to pin down concretely. How can I prove what led to what to what to what? The real question I want to ask today is what’s happening next and with whom and what are we going to eat when we get there?

It’s not that I don’t want to write about my life, because My God, I do. Alone and in groups. In sickness and in health. At this table with these women, and others. In all kinds of weather. It’s just that I don’t want to wait for a deadline or a final draft or the narrative arc of a story that’s not finished before I feel I have the right to tell it.

Besides, I no longer care how or why I got from A to Z but what I’m thinking while walking to B talking to D. My past is already old in the telling, boring after a too long shelf life with a date past expiration.

Yes, parts of it were good, juicy, rich. At least the parts when I wasn't flailing around in bed praying for something to--- please dear God---- happen. Betrayal, luck, lust, horses, farmers, cowboys, cruise ships, fleet captains, sex, whales, trains, whiskey, God, sudden deaths, long distances, heart break. Sobriety. Marriage. Childbirth. Taxes. Etcetera.

But, if I am too obsessed with my past, it will keep me stuck an adolescent girl pining for her daddy, crashing backwards into bottles and men rather than forwards into the woman with strong hands I hoped one day to be. That, holding this pen, I find myself becoming.

My stories linger overripe-- ready to be snatched up or fall away, rotten. Why starve myself waiting alone at a table for a five course meal when I can feast on a platter of delicacies whenever I'm hungry? My story is just like yours--or hers-- and I want to bring it to the world like a covered dish at a potluck.

So, right now I really don’t want to go back, down, through there. At least not alone or for long. I'd rather find myself- and run into you- in unexpected alleys, unexplored valleys, than stir up dust on old roads where the story dead ends.

WARNING: All views expressed in this post about whether or not I am currently writing a memoir are subject to sudden, volatile change.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Running the Distance Between Pages and Streets

Moving has always felt foreign and overwhelming to me. Not just my house, but my body.

They say a body in motion stays in motion but I say a body lying on the bed reading a book stays in bed reading a book until it is time to pay the required fine, because getting to the library requires movement.

Although at one point I made frequent use of public transportation I have traveled far more miles through pages than streets. When I was thirteen and took a cross-country trip with my mother it was not the radio station we fought over but whether I would take my nose out of a book long enough to notice we were no longer in Kansas. I’ve always been a terrible book snob, judging people by their covers, dropping author names like bread crumbs. I made the mistake early in my marriage of giving my husband hell for not reading enough “novels,” even though his preferred reading material baffled me enough to finally seal the deal. What kind of man read Feynman’s Lectures on Physics in the bathroom? The kind of man, apparently, I would spend the rest of my life trying to figure out.

In high school I discovered that I might be book-smart but that my nearly flunking step-brother had a sort of intelligence I would always envy. Street smarts. He might have misspelled every word he spray-painted on his bedroom wall but when the bully at the bus stop threw rocks at my head, it was my step-brother who knew what to say. “Stay the #*@! away from my sister, you $#&@*.” To me, no single sentence before or since has ever sounded smarter.

Particularly not last month, when my husband— high from a newfound running jag- told me he had signed up our entire family not only to run a 5K, but a 5K MudRun. I wasn’t sure whether to kill him or myself. I hadn’t run a mile since those last tortured laps around the field in high school. But, to avoid complete humiliation- and to avoid losing our deposit-- I decided I had better start to train. And by “train,” I mean elevate my feet from the ground at a pace slightly faster than shuffling. But, as the miles added up something weird happened. I started to like it.

Running with my husband allowed me to marvel at his kinesthetic, animal-like intelligence which I could not seem to trump with any quote from any novel. Running with my son allowed us to spend quality time together without having to play baseball or practice kung fu, although perhaps, dear God, those sports are probably next on the horizon. We counted bunnies and butterflies, made up hand signals and sang songs happily hoofing it to the next Stop Sign. Running alone allowed me bursts of energy, confidence and pleasure that I never dreamed I could achieve by moving more than the muscles in my eyelids.

And to my surprise, the race itself was actually ridiculously fun, another in my series of mind-blowing revelations that are already obvious to everyone else [NEWSFLASH, PEOPLE! EXERCISE MAKES YOU FEEL GREAT!). When we first arrived at the island downtown amidst a throng of lithe athletes I felt like an illiterate at a city-wide Spelling Bee. But by the time I actually started to run, I felt A-Part-Of.

A-Part-Of my city, A-Part-Of the river we were running through, A-Part-Of my family, A-Part-Of my body which was sky-rocketing over rocks, trails, suspension bridges, embankments, nature paths. I felt like a thousand million bucks as we crawled across the finish line in the mud on our hands and knees. Even though we were almost last, I knew we were winners. We hadn’t died. And we’d had fun doing it.

Two days later, when I took my pile of books back to the library, I felt a pang of sadness and regret that I had not cracked any of them. I realized this was the first spring I could remember since prepubescence spending more time exploring the world beneath my feet than between two covers. And then, even though I still owed a fine, I didn’t feel sad at all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Fabric of My Life Is Duct-Taped Together By the Kindness of Others

I was once accused of believing that everything that happened in the world happened directly to me.

Because it’s true! When my washing machine's spin cycle stopped spinning a couple of weeks ago it might as well have been me having the breakdown, not my kitchen appliance. That same week, when my car's alternator stopped alternating (or, um, whatever it does) I felt like the one who refused to budge, spitting cold fire, dying silently in Carytown’s upper deck parking lot.

But then something weird happened. People started to offer me help. A family I was convinced you would never see outside of Walmart jumped my car and didn’t laugh at me when I admitted I didn’t know how to pop my own hood. A friend fixed our washing machine on barter. Other friends, in outrageously kind ways have offered me: money, help, advice, time. I am speechless at their generosity and kindness. And I am trying to accept it with grace rather than shame or pride.

Because even though I am thirty-five and a mother who has a mother, I still feel like a babe in the woods. Life still surprises me, usurps me, catches me off guard. I feel like I had my nose in a book about mythological fairies when they handed out the Instruction Manual to Life. And appliances. And finances.

I was once accused of being emotional about money. And it’s true! I am emotional about money, but I’m also emotional about everything else. The lining of my shoes, ripe avocados, the lilt of Delila's voice on Lite 98, my student's writing, electric wires, song birds, books, old friends, new friends, birth, death, refrigerator art, car parts, music.

I seem to process life through my tear ducts.

Friends have told me that they envy my ability to cry. I envy their ability not to. I wish I was tougher, stronger, less vulnerable, more in control, less in need of help, more self-sufficient. But I’m not. I seem to need all the help I can get. And it’s humbling, and beautiful and life-changing to accept it. I only hope I can repay all of the kindnesses that have been given to me.

Because lately it’s felt like the fabric of my life has been duct-taped together by the kindness of others. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe it’s not so bad to have a life that looks more like a collaboration than a one-woman show.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sometimes I Miss My Uterus. Period.

(Frida Kahlo Uterus Plushie compliments of Regretsy)

It still catches me off guard.

Suddenly, I find myself craving a cheeseburger smothered in chocolate. I start to miss people I never even liked. At the same time, I’m convinced I could teach a week-long seminar called “F-You! Recovery From People Pleasing.” Immersed in a strange blend of fierce and tender, maternal and homicidal feelings, I cry at soft rock and infomercials. I unbutton my jeans and wonder if it’s that time of the month. From 13 until 31, the seismic shift in my emotional landscape was signaled by a monthly red flag-- that arrived in my own underpants. But not anymore.

Four years ago, my period vanished with a bang. On Cinco de Mayo in 2007, I was T-boned at an intersection on the way home from getting a mani-pedi at a salon downtown. I don’t normally care about my nails, but I had just had my sixth miscarriage and a thoughtful friend felt like I needed a little extra TLC. At the time of the accident, there was still a baby inside me, scheduled to be removed, along with my uterus, at the end of the week. On the stretcher, I held onto the one positive thought I could conjure: “My cuticles looked great!” But everything else looked pretty grim. After getting my bangs and bruises bandaged up, I checked back into the same hospital, three days later, for a hysterectomy.

In most regards, I was more than ready to part ways with my uterus. For as long as I could remember I’d suffered terrible pain from fibroids. And six miscarriages was six too many. Because my uterus was sent to pathology the same week my family car was sold for parts at the city junkyard, I decided I would not be looking at minivans. That Mother’s Day, I chose the most adorable hunk of metal with wheels I could find in the tri-city area: a 2003 diesel Volkswagen New Beetle. And my son’s car seat fit perfectly in the back.

Slowly, over the last few years, I have come to terms with raising an only child. The grief I initially felt at not being able to give him a sibling has been replaced by acceptance, relief and even gratitude. I know now how fortunate we are to have one vibrant, beautiful, healthy boy. And honestly, I really don’t miss poop-filled diapers, sleepless nights or trying to get work done with another human being attached to my ankle. At six, my son is a full-fledged human being who is actually quite fun to hang out with. I am an extremely lucky mom. And I think that my shiny tomato red bug is as good a trade-in on my uterus as I am going to get.

But sometimes, to my surprise, I actually miss having a period. Without its regularity, my life often feels like one long run-on sentence. I don’t miss the monthly cocktail of ibuprofen and acetaminophen, the heating pads, the boiling hot Epsom salt baths that took the pain away as long as I was in them, but there are things I do. I miss the excuse and the explanation, the cycle, the rhythm, the idea of the blood in my body being connected to the moon, to the tides and to the women with whom I spend my time.

A few months ago, I took my son to the play area of the local mall. As I watched him jump repeatedly off the head of an enormous green turtle, I started to cry uncontrollably. And then it occurred to me. I texted a girlfriend. “Do you have your period?” I asked. “Because I’m crying at the mall.”

“Yes,” she texted back. “And I’m crying at home.” Immediately, I felt better. I felt connected to something bigger than myself, part of an invisible network of support accessible to me if I asked for it. I was still all me and all woman... with a little help from my friends.