Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Last Friday...

Last Friday, I’m driving to lunch when a bad headache comes on, all of the sudden, and I turn around to go back to the library. I tell my supervisor I have to go home but I drive instead to my parents’ house in Williamson Valley because I need to pick up my dog. She’s been there for days, because of a javelina situation, and because I’ve been busy.  But no one is there when I arrive, just Bella and Milo howling on the porch, and I can’t just take off with Bella because I know my parents will worry when she’s not on the porch, and also my headache is so bad I think I’m going to throw up.

So I take both dogs into my old room and lie down. The dogs curl up on the bed with me, and even though I am allergic to him, I bury my face against Milo’s back and close my eyes. I think about the pain, and the nausea, and about car accidents and whip lash and brain tumors and aneurisms and I fall asleep as Bella, after trying unsuccessfully to engage Milo in a sparring match, sprawls across my feet and settles her head in the crook of my knees.

When my mother comes home about an hour later, the dogs erupt into a hairy ball of thunder and teeth and toenails, scattering pillows and scratching me as they leap from the window to the door to greet her.

She is surprised to see me and but knows right away that it means I am sick.
The phone rings and it is my father. He’s with my grandmother, shopping, and won’t be home for hours. My mother and I sit on the couch and she offers to make me soup and I say yes but first, she sorts through the mail.

“This is for you,” she says. She doesn’t like that after moving out again more than 3 years ago, I still have mail coming to the house. It’s an alumni magazine is from a college I went to in England. I drop the magazine on the  living room table. David Attenborough is on the cover, “I thought he died,” she says.

“Maybe it’s a tribute.”

I tell her about my week, about the Volunteer Banquet and the trivia night I went to with a friend and the latest library gossip and she tells me about the family – most of which I picked up already on Facebook, but she’s not on Facebook, so I let her talk.

She tells me about her brother who just published his third novel. She’s eight chapters in, and it’s good, she says. I already bought it, but haven’t had time to start reading it yet. She tells me that our family reunion for the 4th of July has been cancelled, and that my cousin Anne is going to live in England for 6 months.

This ,I’ve known for a while, but no details, no dates, just a half a year in England. “Where will they be living?”
“Near Manchester?” she says but I don’t think she knows where that is. I think about the Manchester accent. I think about the prisoners I knew from there.

And then she says, “We should go. You and I. We should go and you can see your friends and I can tour around with Anne.”
And I immediately reach for the same excuse I’ve used for the past 5 years.
“I don’t have a passport.”
“So… get your passport.”

Easy answer. Been meaning to do it for years. I got the pictures taken, filled out the form, found another excuse, put the form in a drawer.

There is a reason I haven’t gone back. But maybe now, this time, there is no real excuse anymore. I just need to face it. I should go back and if it happens, if England still feels like home, then maybe I need to think about what that means. And if it doesn’t, then maybe we’ll just have a nice time.

“Oh,” says my mother. She’s on her kindle, checking her email. “I got a message from Marshall.” My brother. “He says he’s sorry about the reunion, and that we should go to Portland instead.”

I tell her I need to think about it, that it depends. I don’t know what it depends on, but I’m tired and my head still hurts and I don’t want to make any decisions or commitments or anything.

“Want to watch a move?” she asks.
“Yes. But, also, can I have some soup?”

She puts down the kindle and tells me to go upstairs and lie down, turn on the TV and she will make me a tray.
“Also, cheese and crackers?”
“Yes. Now go upstairs. Take the dogs.”

I lie down on the couch and start sneezing. I’m starting to think it’s not Milo I’m allergic to but something in the house.  But the couch is sort of new and wide and soft and I pull a fuzzy blanket up to my chin and think about England but also how nice it is to have my parents living nearby when I feel like this.

My mother calls from downstairs. “Have you got the dogs? If Bella jumps on me on the stairs …  no soup for you.”

Milo was already asleep on the floor, but I call Bella over and she climbs halfway onto my chest. She’s not allowed on the couch, but if her back legs are on the floor it doesn’t count. I know this and she knows this. I hold onto her collar just in case.

My mother comes up the stairs carrying a tray with two bowls of homemade chicken soup, a glass of water and cheese and crackers.

“Let’s watch something terrible,” she says.

And we do. Automata, a dystopian sci-fi low-budget version of  I, Robot starring Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith.

My mother sleeps through half of it, startling awake occasionally and grabbing my foot because she thinks it’s the remote control. “Oops,” she says, taking back her hand. “Sorry.”

More time passes and she doesn’t know what’s going on. A robot voiced by Javier Bardem gets his head blown off. “Why do all the robots have different accents?”
I think that’s a great question.

After the movie, we go back downstairs. My allergies are out of control and it’s time to go home. My headache is gone, but then my father pulls into the driveway, so I wait.

He comes in, asks about my headache, asks if it’s because of the accident, reminds me to drink more water and not settle with the insurance company yet.

“They keep calling me. But I’m always at work,” I say.
“You’ve got time. You don’t know the long term effects.”

He tells me about his week, about shopping with Grandma. The phone rings, my mom says ‘it’s your mother’ as she answers it, but the line goes dead. His cell goes off next. I listen to his one-sided conversation.

“It wasn’t on the list, Ma.” There’s a pause, and then louder, “It wasn’t ON THE LIST. I’ll bring it tomorrow. I’LL BRING IT TOMORROW. TOMORROW MA. TOMORROW!”

And then his voice drops to barely a whisper. “Ok. Bye bye.” I think about how she probably never hears him say goodbye. I wonder if she thinks he hangs up on her.

He turns to me as he puts his phone away. “We forgot the water. It wasn’t on her list. I told her to make a list.”

He asks me about my phone. He wants to know how many apps I have. We have the same phone, but he’s been taking a class. “Did you know that locking your phone doesn’t shut off Siri? Anybody can get in there? A bad guy could steal the phone, say ‘call gramma,’ pretend to be you and steal all her money?”

I give it a try. I pick up my phone, double click the button without unlocking it first and ask Siri to call home. The house phone starts ringing. My mother, Captain Oblivious, says, “Phone!”

I do another test. “Siri. Set my alarm for 6:30 tomorrow.” Siri does it.
That’s cool. At least the bad guy won’t be late to his bad guy appointments.

I get up to leave.

Bella prances to the door, all tail and legs and growling purrs, and I wait for her to calm down before I attach the leash.

I say bye to my parents as she pulls me out the door. At the top of the stairs Bella pauses, head between the railings, searching for rabbits. She is so still, I can’t blame her for what happens next.

I’m on the second step when my left leg stops working, or gives out, or disappears completely.  In slow motion, I fall and land first on my knees, then my wrists and finally onto my right shoulder. I lay there for a moment until Bella turns, whines, and licks my face.

I take a deep breath and am glad, as I always am when this happens, that no one else was there to see. I pull myself up and rub my knees and imagine dark, symmetrical bruises.

The front door opens behind me, and my father steps onto the porch with the magazine in his hand. “Your mother says you forgot this.”
He doesn’t really care if I pick up my mail either.

“I thought you came out because you heard me fall down.”
“Nope. You forgot this thing.” He waves it at me and I take it. “Are you ok?”
“Yep. See you later.”
“Your car. I looked it up. For a side impact collision, it rates ok.” He’s continuing a conversation we’ve been having since my accident. He doesn’t think my Civic is safe anymore. “I couldn’t find the article about the roll over accidents though,” he said.

“Well, there’s a support bar, Dad. By the window?” I point at my car, and then continue, stupidly. “But I don’t know how safe a car can be with a sunroof? The glass would go everywhere.”

“I didn’t know it had a sunroof,” he says, like this changes something. Like he’s going straight back to the Consumer Report to see if a sunroof makes a difference. This is what he does. I was in an accident. I’m mostly ok. But still he worries.

“I don’t know,” he says again. “Just be careful.”

I put Bella in the car and drive back downtown to my house, thinking about accidents and England and my library and my grandmother, about headaches and falling down and how much it’s all going to hurt later.

Bella whines as we pull into the driveway, relieved to be home.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Night sounds

I’m sitting on my front porch. It’s cold and windy and the light I’m using to see what I write only extends about 20 feet into the yard. It creates a small bubble of security, and the line where it fades into the dark neighborhood feels like a fence, or a force field, or a giant impenetrable wall.

And then a police car passes slowly in front of my house, the glow from the porch glances off the reflectors on the roof and I wonder how my quiet little street wound up on their regular patrol. This is a recent change. Until a few months ago, I never saw cops here. I wonder what they are looking for. I wonder why the sight of the police in my library is reassuring, but in my neighborhood, it is disconcerting.

What is the danger I am ignoring?
What am I forgetting to be afraid of?
Are they looking for me?

These are my thoughts.

But then the wind hits the chimes that hang from my roof and I lose myself in the familiar song that so often plays in the background whenever I write outside at night. The chimes are well tuned and soft, never clanging, never abrasive or sharp, and if it weren’t for the weak light and the dull music, I wouldn’t be able to sit out here feeling safe and sheltered.  Because I am afraid of what I cannot see and what I sometimes think I hear, like footsteps and breaking glass and loud TVs and crying children and speeding cars.

I know this bubble of protection is an illusion, that the light is no insulation, and I know that the sound of my wind chimes fills the whole neighborhood.

I wonder if it bothers anyone.
And then I don’t care.

Because maybe they like it.

Maybe it reassures them too. 
Maybe it’s part of the night sounds. 
Maybe it’s a mask for the other noise, like the traffic on the main road, like the beagles up the street.Maybe it’s an accompaniment to the cracking branches and the shifting shushes of the pine needles brushing like waves in an arid sea.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Writing about writing about yourself

I’m reading a book that I could have written.

I’ve read many books I wish I’d written – books about the college experience and confusion and finding oneself. About prisons and libraries. Books or stories that so perfectly captured what I’d known and felt that, after reading them, writing about those experiences myself would have felt redundant, unnecessary, and I feared, produce a lesser version.

That’s not how I feel this time.

This book is about keeping a diary. I got my first diary when I was 8, and over the next 10 years I wrote about my feelings and thoughts and frustrations off and on in spiral-bound notebooks.

And then I took a writing workshop 15 years ago, the summer before college, and started writing on purpose, keeping track of the words in numbered notebooks I called journals.  Everyone who knows me knows about the journals. I took them to England and brought them back again.

Last week I started #50.

So I’m reading this book about the diary a woman kept over the course of  25 years. From my brief research about her, it’s clear we are very different. She is married, and has children. She has published several memoirs. She is a professional writer.

But this most recent book of hers, I know I wrote it too.  I’m reading her words and I’m writing down in my journal (as I do) the things she says that feel true, and I realize I have to stop after less than 20 pages because every idea, every sentence, is familiar. I have to stop writing out her words because I’m going to transcribe every one.

The book is called Ongoingness: the End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso.

“From the beginning, I knew the diary wasn’t working, but I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t think of any other way to avoid getting lost in time” (4).

From the beginning, writing has been a compulsion for me. So many times, I couldn’t sleep without first writing out the day, recording the feelings, reliving them, writing first about what happened, then how I’d reacted, and finally, what I wish I’d done instead. I seem to make a lot of mistakes, some of them over and over, and rereading my journals has only ever confirmed that for me.  

“To write a diary is to make a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget” (6).

At first, it was a shock to me to realize I might record an alternate version of an event and then, in rereading it, the written version became the new memory.
I tested it out. I’d change certain details to make a better story, or to cover up the shame, and the altered version always overwrote the memory. It didn’t quite settle – I reread some of these entries and there are clues that it didn’t happen that way. Maybe because they’re too polished for what should have been a first draft.

So, I’d read those entries and know it didn’t actually happen that way … but I still can’t remember the truth. That scared the shit out of me. It meant that not only couldn’t I trust myself to record a true version, I also couldn’t trust my own memories.

So, I stopped writing for a while. There’s a gap in my journals which starts in late 2008, and continues through 2009 where I wrote almost nothing – 17 entries for that entire year -- and only really picks up again after I left England and moved back to Arizona. But without that record, fabricated or not, I remember almost nothing from that time . Leaving England was the most significant decision I’d made since choosing to move there in the first place, and I have almost no record of it.

I know I was unhappy.
And I stopped writing because I wanted to forget.
But now I can’t remember why I left.

“I’ve met people who consider diary keeping as virtuous as daily exercise or prayer or charity […] They imagine I have willpower or strength of character. It would be harder for me not to write it, I try to explain […] I write the diary instead of taking exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky. It’s a vice” (10).

When I picked it up again, it was deliberate. I started a writing project with my mother – the Daily Theme blog – and suddenly I was back in the habit of writing almost every day.

And once that happened, the words started spilling out again – most of which were not appropriate or relevant to our project. And when I say not appropriate, I don’t mean salacious or sensational. At that point, I was almost 30, unemployed and living with my parents. Still I was filling pages and pages again, and most of those words weren’t related to the topic of the day – but in order to get to that topic, I had to wade through all the other thoughts first.  And I needed a place to put them.

“Twenty-five years later the practice is an essential component of my daily hygiene. I’d sooner go unbathed” (11).

Most of the time, I write about the things I should be doing instead of writing. I write about how I should be taking a bath. Or cleaning the house. Or laundry. Or I write about how I should be writing about other things.  Instead of writing about writing, or forming an actual finished essay, my journal contains mundane and repetitive lists of things to do, ways to change, and goals to meet, and then is often followed by almost hourly updates on how I’ve already failed to achieve them.

When I was in college, I remember being very frustrated with a friend who would say, at any given moment, “I should be studying right now.” And I hated that – I hated the idea that we were having a good time and all she could think about was what she should be doing instead. I hate that I have become that person, describing how I waste my time. I write about that a lot.

“Another friend said, I want to write sentences that seem as if no one wrote them. The goal being the creation of a pure delivery system, without the distraction of a style. The goal being a form no one notices, the creation of what seems like pure feeling, not of what seems like a vehicle for a feeling. Language as pure experience, pure memory. I too wanted to achieve that impossible effect” (16).

I too want to achieve that effect. But I don’t know if it’s impossible. When the writing really takes hold, and I stop mouthing the words under my breath as I write them, a direct path seems to form between my brain and the pen  (or the keyboard) and I’m often surprised reading later what I’ve said, because I didn’t know that’s what I thought. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

I write better than I speak. I don’t know if it’s a confidence thing, or the fact that I get distracted by the sound of my voice, or that I’m afraid to see the effect my spoken words have on the listener – because when it comes out wrong, it’s awful. I never share a first draft with a reader, why do I have to speak words without thinking? When something comes out wrong on the paper I can scratch it out, but if I say the wrong words out loud they can’t ever be taken back.

Yet when the words do come out right, when I’ve expressed not just how I feel but how someone else might feel, and if someone reads these words and understands … then it doesn’t feel like a waste of time anymore. When I’ve spent more time revising the words than the time it took to write them, it doesn’t ever feel like a waste.

I’ve reread, reworked, and rearranged these particular words over and over. This is not my journal, but it feels like I’ve been writing this piece for 15 (or 25) years.

And that book I’m reading doesn’t quote a single line from her diary. The journals and diaries are just notes on life for us (the writers) alone. When we share our words with anyone else, we choose those words on purpose, for a reason, and with care.

“The only thing I ever wrote that wasn’t for an audience was the diary” (94).