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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Earning 28.

This is a bit late.

I turned 28 yesterday. This is the first birthday that has bothered me. But I remind myself that I probably shouldn't have seen 27, and my mom reminded me that I have a pretty great life for 28. 

My usual birthday-time practice is to look back on the year and see how I made use of it, how I earned my birthday, what was worthwhile. I'm often surprised over how much I've actually done. I accomplished and endured so much when I was 26, but 27 was probably more impressive than I realize.

  • I taught a total of 15 college courses, 3 of them in the summer.
  • I taught my first literature course.
  • I taught a literature course that I designed from the concept up. 
  • I introduced students to the kind of literature that is being born right now, and they were amazed. 
  • I taught creative writing for the third time, having made improvements I feel good about.
  • I dealt with a scary fire (arson) that wrecked my apartment building and threatened my boys.
  • I researched, documented, and organized detailed information for our renter's insurance, and the adjustors were impressed with the work. I never want to do that again.
  • I moved--only to a different apartment this time.
  • I started moving away from the college-student, hand-me-down way of decorating and chose my own replacement furniture.
  • I bought a living room set from Pottery Barn! Whoa!
  • I set up a sweet, open room for Oliver.
  • I made home colorful.
  • I taught a seminar on English in the workplace to all the faculty, staff, and administration at my college. And even the welding instructors said they enjoyed it.
  • I read 48 books.
  • I read 5 independent reader books aloud to Oliver.
  • I decided that I needed to read more short stories, and I read 12 books of them.
  • I wrote some new poems and stories and revised some old ones.
  • I probably filled 10 journals (I don't feel like going through them!).
  • I put together a literary magazine by a week...and didn't explode.
  • I got my critical thinking students to understand logical fallacies...sort of.
  • I went to my first conference.
  • I finished some 36 hours of professional development.
  • I had my first two short story publications. 
  • I finished 14 months of breastfeeding.
  • I supported a family of three.
  • I supported my husband in beginning his work on a master's degree. 
  • I grew my hair long after years of keeping in short (partly in response to a tragedy).
  • I got my Snow White hair! That's one off the 30 before 30 list.
  • I got through another terrible tragedy without cutting my hair or losing my mind.
  • I missed six days of work due to said tragedy and pneumonia--it's amazing that I could bear to do this.
  • I handled someone's huge confession with calm, loving acceptance and encouragement.
  • I gave good advice even though the situation terrified me.
  • Josh and I left Oliver alone with someone else while we went to the doctor. Also amazing though necessary.
  • I got comfortable with a new office mate.
  • I listened to and comforted students who needed to share their heart-breaking and horrifying stories.
  • I was open about my depression and sought help from doctors and from the people who love me most.
  • I made a friend. I pushed it! Me! 
  • I withstood numerous instincts to bolt from said friendship.
  • I formed a deep new bond and trust.
  • I told most of my hardest stories in detail, and in the process, I wrote them down.
  • I started carpooling to work. Me? Comfortable stuck with someone for a couple of hours a day? While I'm driving? Amazing but true.
  • I managed conflicts without completely freaking out.
  • I push myself to learn (again) how to communicate my needs and feelings clearly.
  • I rebuilt a lot of the memory, concentration, and problem-solving skills that left me after Oliver was born.
  • I helped a human learn to say words.
  • I watched a human learn to walk, dance, and run.
  • I balanced taking care of my son while not pretending that I don't have feelings and struggles.  
  • I maintained a strong, connected marriage.
  • I gave audiobooks another chance. 
  • I invited a non-relative to my house...and had fun.
  • I didn't give up during long-term, heavy depression and anxiety.
  • I started to get better.
I guess that will do. All right, 28. Let's go.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Hush.

4:40 a.m. I spoke to his back: “I need you to love me.”

I heard the exhalation that meant he was instantly awake and smiling. He turned onto his back and pulled me to his chest. 

“I’m down,” I said.

“Any reason?”

“I don’t know if there’s a reason.” Pause. “I can feel myself pulling away.”

“From your friendship?”


“Do you mean it’s something you’re actively doing, not that he’s drifting away?”

“It’s me. But I’m pretty sure it’s not voluntary. I guess it’s some defense mechanism, and stupid things trip it.”

“That must feel kind of scary.”

I turned onto my back, looking up at the proportionally placed glowing planets on the ceiling. “Yeah. And it’s really sad.”

“It’s not surprising though. This is completely new for you. It’s way beyond anything you ever thought could be your comfort zone. Well, I don’t think he’s going to let you pull away. And I won’t let you either.” He gave me a Peter Cetera look. “I am a Joe who will fight for your friendship.”

I looked at him and hugged him hard around the shoulders. “You’re so nice.”

“I’m in love with you. And I want you to be happy. So, so happy. And I think this is good for you. I’ve felt hopeful.”


“You’ve seemed lighter, not so prone to darkness. Your friend can’t cure it, but I think he’s a good long-term treatment.”

He left the room and came back with his Diet Pepsi and Fruit Loops. “I’m going to eat breakfast and sit here with you, tickling you or whatever you want.”

The smile glowed into the muscles of my face. He read me a brilliant new poem. And I slipped back into sleep.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friendship...for Crazy People.

Prepare for intense mixed metaphors.

I've determined that human interaction brings out the worst in me.

I feel as if I've been regressing and mutating into a grasping, internal-fit-pitching little brat. Imagining slights. Aching over my not having a special role, a new role. Tiny sparks of perplexing anger. Passive aggressive ticks that I keep fighting. And all those qualities that feel most like disease, like guilt: pettiness, jealousy, and craving.

And I think, What is happening to me? What am I letting happen? Well, I know what's changed, what I've been trying to do.

Since I constantly try to shove an understanding of logical fallacies into my students' brains, I automatically examine myself: causal oversimplification. It's not just this human interaction, this trying to make and keep a friend--no, not keep...let the friend keep me. Other factors: layers of events no one should experience, some of them my own fault; family illness; work stress; re-balancing hormones after I quit taking the birth control pill that made me forever mono-ish; medication changes; an evil flare of the back pain I've had since Oliver was born. Also, post hoc: the fact that I started turning into a gremlin after I tried to make a friend does not mean that the friend event caused the germlinity.

And all that shattering: confirmation of impermanence, of triviality, of gauzy connections, of the dissolvability (it's a word) of anything, everything. So all the chemicals were there for a twice- or thrice-daily existential meltdown. They just needed a catalyst.

Sizzle. Bang.

After the most recent of these confirmation-of-dissolvability (really, it's a word) events, I wrote a first draft of a poem...sitting alone in a Veteran's Day program at work. The last stanza had lines about pulling the string of a stent that had held my heart open. That appeared because my family has a horrible tendency to make kidney stones. One of said family members had such a ripping time passing a stone that the urologist inserted a stent (not just in the urethra but, I think, in the ureter) to keep the injured tract from swelling shut. And apparently, patients tend to get so irritated that they can't bear that string, and like a kid scratching chicken pox, against all reason, they just have to pull.

Anyway, right now, this makes me think of an equally gross and also urine-related situation. After Oliver was born, I had a catheter. It worked for everyone. I didn't have to untangle from cords and crawl to the bathroom, and the nurses were pleased that I drank gallons of water. When I was ready to leave ICU, the doctor told my nurse to remove the catheter. She, being a brave critical thinker, went to him and said, "I don't think you are aware of the extent of the injury and swelling. If I take the catheter out now, she'll have to have another. And putting in another would be horrible if not impossible" (Okay, I'm imagining an excessively eloquent version of this exchange). So the cath stayed.

So stent, cath, whatever--I didn't realize it completely, but I think I really did pull that stent out of my heart. The swelling had already been substantial. Everything was in various levels of shredded-ness. And something so small, inconspicuous as a plastic tube, came loose with the slightest tug, and all that injury grew over the last open space. Nothing comes in. Nothing goes out. Well, certainly nothing new.

Or almost.

Now, masks. I've had a work persona that I've refined over time and customized for various jobs. Cute, sweet, quick, competent, enthusiastic, a little sassy. I'm not saying those are aspects of me anyway, but these elements worked for me. People liked me and trusted me but didn't pay close attention...and didn't invite me out after I said no a few times. I could work without friction, get recognition without too much attention.If I know what I'm doing, if I've set up or stepped into a well-defined role and persona, I handle social situations pretty well. Some of my students and coworkers refuse to believe I'm shy or have ever been shy.

Now, eggs. I love egg salad sandwiches. This does not seem like something I'd like. Mayonnaise is disgusting, and Miracle Whip is vile. But any way, one of the first poems of mine that appeared in a real journal was about making egg salad. Well, it was really about a wife resenting a husband's sudden burst of chivalric social interest... but the literal part was making egg salad. Egg peeling requires a knock on the counter edge or a squeeze in the fist: those first cracks have to appear. And when the shell fragments let go, they tend to bring the clear but tough skin with them. And sometimes, the skin brings a little of the white flesh away too.

Let's see if I can untwist myself from this.

So there's the work persona. I was comfortable in that, and comfortable with this person as wry mentor, as colleague, as chatter and  None of it was fake, but it was limited. Taking off a mask, even a partial mask, would leave me not knowing what to do with my face.

A couple of weeks ago, a barrier, a secret that blurred my view of this person, that made me uneasy, disintegrated. And my pleasant, whitewashed and polished concrete wall--my semi-natural social barrier--holy cabooses--wasn't there. And I, having already had that uncomfortable (for me) but also glimmering sense of soul siblinghood, looked at the person leaning against the filing cabinet and thought, "I am so screwed." Even so, I ventured. I acknowledged that secret hurt. And no social barrier appeared to send me tumbling back. And I said to Josh, "I think I'm going to try to make friends with him," as if it were an involuntary muscle movement and half hoping he would talk me out of it; but of course, he just laughed and said, "I won't say I told you so, but I did." And, knowing I was being a complete idiot, I ventured further. Goodreads message. It was my suggestion anyway. E-mail address. Phone number. What was I doing?

And then, I was staring at my saddest stories. I lay them out and tried to organize them. Which could I bear to bring out? Which would be least frightening for someone else? So I organized them, not expecting to get past the first one, two, or three.

Momentum. I realize now that I knew I was going to hit the panic point soon and start backpedaling hard. So I typed for hours. A mini memoir in installments. All of my saddest stories, all the spots that suddenly moan like Collin, shadow-wrapped in Misselthwaite Manor, when it rains. Yes, Secret Garden is coming too. For several reasons, it has to.

Every time, I thought, "This one. This is the one that will cause the shutdown, the nice-knowing-ya." But it didn't happen. And when the backpedaling frenzy came--
when the morning when even existing was equivalent to dragging myself through a tight tangle of poisoned thorns
and I said to Josh, "I think I'm going to have to do the break up. It can't be right; I can't be. And I'm not stable enough to deal with that,"
and I could hear Josh through his teeth-brushing, "Searching for the Perfect Solution?"
and I didn't lie but didn't talk either
and I saw, "I can handle this. So can you."
and I saw that perfect green through my hair
and that little seating arrangement upset was like an arm around me, a silent steadiness
and Josh said, "Yes, you can't [expletive] around, and you have to tell. You have to explain it."
and Josh said, "Yes, I think a friend is the right thing. Yes, I think this friend is the right friend."
and I said a jumble of worriedguiltyprotectivedoubtfulbewilderedexasperated freakfest
and I was almost trembling with the need to run--
I did hit a barrier, a wall. It was behind me, and its pressure was suddenly at my back, holding me up and holding me still. And a rough translation of the words on it is Not gonna happen.
I didn't count on a refusal that wasn't mine and wasn't the kind mine usually is. And I was...quiet. No hamster wheels, no red alert, no Vulcan-ness. And I believed that it was real and that I could do it.

Now, don't get too excited; it didn't last. And even today, I thought, "What is wrong with you?" My mom used to say that I had a hole in my love bucket, that I never felt assured. The bucket seems to have corroded further, or maybe I'm just finding holes that I didn't notice when I was so full of rocks. And I thought, "I haven't been this insecure since my early teens. Friendship is just a simple thing, right? It seems to be on that side. So why am I a complete lunatic? This is why I never make connections. It's not just because I don't want to. It's because I can't. I shouldn't."

But then I thought a bit more, and I remembered a twenty-year-old girl who had, in this case, really smashed up her life, like trying to escape through a glass shop, plenty of cuts for everyone around. And she was in love. And she was crazy. She said crazy stuff. She thought crazier stuff. She was never sure, could never ask, could only moanmumble incoherently. Her letters are strange and apologetic and pleading. She was a bat cave of hurt, terror, and mortification. And more than once, she thought, "Step back. Get back. Run like hell." 

But somehow, she stayed. And now, she is a girl (all right, a woman) who, on that poisoned-thorn-tangle morning, could look at her husband--that same poor boy who struggled through all that crazy with her while she fought all those instincts to bolt and while she clung to what said, "This is right. This is okay. Nothing's safe, but this is pretty close. This is your chance,"--and push out the words, "Can you just pay attention to me?"

And that boy, who knows all the crazy, who knows how to calm the crazy and how to simply sit next to the crazy, put down The Fur Queen book and his banana yogurt and pulled her over to him, not minding the slight involuntary resistance, and tickled her back, murmuring small, bolstering sentences like "You've made me happy for over seven years."

And she isn't used to this insecurity not because she hasn't experienced it but because she beat it by pushing it back daily, with her Love's help, saying, "No. We're doing this. It's happening." And now, that need to fight it is rare. She can say and do and be anything, and they can both get through each other's glass shop without breaking more than a champagne flute or two.Usually.

So it occurs to me that "the worst in me" is just that--that little seething snake pit in the core. And all this cracking (Dickon cuts the wood, sees the green, calls the rose wick) lets them crawl around. And maybe I can still tear away all this yellow wallpaper (so much of it my own making, to cover up so much else that I didn't make) before I start crawling around too.

And I have been trying, trying, trying to verbalize, but it's usually...well, another freakfest. I told Josh last night, "I was trying to be all chill and get what I needed with these laid-back questions, and then, I just started barfing crazy everywhere."
Josh, bless him, said, "You're adorable. I'm sure he just thinks you're adorable."

Usually, hydrogen peroxide doesn't hurt--it's just those tiny bubbles. But once, I let a bag of trash I was carrying hit the back of my leg. Glass inside the bag cut me. I stood in the bathtub while Josh poured the hydrogen peroxide, and feeling completely shocked and betrayed, I stifled a scream. That hydrogen peroxide hurt like hell. Because I needed it.

So it makes sense that trying to jam a stent back into a swollen, raw vital muscle would hurt and would lay bare a person's worst. And a lot of those refusal walls, a lot of pulling me back, will be necessary and more difficult than popping open a jammed pink stapler with pink-handled scissors. And yes, in a gritty reboot, Collin will probably have to search for the fit-pitching Mary and drag her out into the garden.

And here's the deal: even if he doesn't show up, it's worth trying. No falling back on Searching for the Perfect Solution or on the Impossible Certainty. I've done this before and with much higher stakes. And I do need a friend. And I do care so much. And I do just like the guy. And we're similar, and one topic always opens another. And the social barrier wasn't there (as I said, holy cabooses). And he doesn't seem to have any plans to let me bolt. We'll see. When I look at it that way (and at least for these few moments, I actually can), it does seem pretty simple.

And I may freak out tomorrow. And I may even run away a little. But then, I'll try to come back. Oh, and here's something else that makes me think this may not just unearth the worst in me. I haven't been writing in my journal for a few weeks. This is a pretty sure sign of soul death. Four days ago, I picked up my journal before I went to sleep. I've written in it every night since.

Also, he told me today that he's great at peeling eggs.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Quick Thoughts: Diary Details.

When I read my own journals from several years ago, the parts I like most are the daily details: what I was reading, what I ate for dinner, what came in the mail, and what I bought at the grocery store. These are also the kinds of details that are fascinating in historical diaries. So I remind myself to record details that may seem mundane because someday, I or someone else in the future may love those tiny discoveries.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Best Supporting Moments: The Envelope at the Mall

I was eight. I remember being on plane next to my dad on our way to his parents' house for Christmas. He was telling me that he'd bought tickets to a musical for Mom as a Christmas gift. I asked about the story. He said he thought it was something about a crazy guy who lives in the attic at the Opera House. It sounded fantastic.

I couldn't stop thinking about it, and Dad didn't know enough to satisfy my curiosity. Luckily, my grandparents, who had already introduced the thrilling world of musicals to me through videos from Carousel to Gigi, had seen the show and had the soundtrack. They even had a souvenir program with gorgeous photos, which they later gave to me.

Grandpa let me use his Discman, pretty new and fancy at the time. I remember spending most of that trip in a wing back chair in the quiet formal living room, listening to the two CDs over and over and studying the booklet with the libretto.

I think I knew then that I had a darkness in me, an oppressive sadness and terror, something that my parents couldn't understand or even really see, something that would probably leave me isolated forever. Phantom gave external shape to that, made it more okay, made me wonder if it was or could be what Phantom, many years later in Love Never Dies, would call "the beauty underneath," and that maybe, unlike him, I would find someone who could look directly at that and love me anyway.

I wasn't conscious of all that at the time of course; in fact, it wasn't until a year or two ago that I realized that I had always identified not with Christine but with Erik (apart from the murderous tendencies, literal deformities, and extreme genius). But I knew that this was vital, likely one of the most important and impacting discoveries of my life. By the time we went home, I knew every note and every word.

Grandpa ensured that I had always had a Walkman, usually a freebie with Radio Shack or Circuit City purchases. He soon took me to actually buy one, asking the salesperson for a sturdier model. I remember Grandpa's saying, "Oh, no, she doesn't abuse it. She just plays it until it breaks." I don't remember exactly how I ended up with the soundtrack--just the highlights on tape. Maybe Nanna and Grandpa had a tape for the car and gave it to me. In any case, my life could continue.

I remember the night Mom and Dad went to the play. I was sick with jealous sadness but trying so hard to be happy for them, for the life-altering experience they were about to have. I think one or both of them had said something about it being too scary for me to see anyway, and I knew that tickets cost more than I could fathom. Somehow, though, I knew that they would not appreciate the wonder the way I would. As my mother put me to bed that night, I said, "Please--tomorrow, tell me everything, everything."

The details she remembered weren't sufficient to fulfill my hopes, but in my parents' compassion, they had bought me a souvenir program with a white cover. Oh. I lost it at some point later--a heartbreak I feel even now.

We were at the mall, probably Hickory Hollow in Nashville. I think I remember a rush of after-Christmas sales. Dad disappeared for a while. I was melancholy. I remember the sudden cold and dark as we entered the parking deck to find our car and go home. Dad held something out: a slim envelope with advertisements on it. I was confused. I opened the envelope and saw block letters on purple and white. Eventually, the letters came together, and I understood.

Two tickets. My daddy was taking me to see Phantom. I don't know if I could even speak, but I remember the sensation of my ribs cracking open and my heart trying to shoot up to the top of the deck. Wonder of wonders, something I never expected.

And it did change my life. It opened wide a new world of music and musicals. But Phantom has kept my heart for almost twenty years. About a month ago, I had finally started on a second medication (which required me to stop nursing earlier than I wished) to help me through a returning and worsening depression that was pressing my face harder and harder into the ground. I didn't know if the medicine or my own efforts were working. But then, I suddenly started listening to, looking at photos from, pondering, researching, and talking about Phantom and its sequel Love Never Dies again, as I hadn't done actively for years. And I realized that yes, I was getting better. An essential part of myself, a soaring shade of my soul, which my parents and grandparents made possible through some strange intuitive understanding (no, they didn't understand, but they knew) and mercy, had returned to me.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Today's Literature.

I wrote this for the introductory discussion in the current American literature class I'm teaching:

When I studied creative writing as a graduate student, I realized how important contemporary literature was and what a complex range of work was available to me. I spent a year reading dozens of books of contemporary poetry. I realized that in order to be a successful poet, I had to understand how poetry has changed from the rhyming sonnets I read in high school. I've also focused on contemporary novels, short stories, and memoirs, watching new releases in bookstores, at the library, and through magazines. I used to scoff at the idea of current novels, and contemporary poetry confused me. But now I realize how important contemporary literature is for me both as a writer and as a contemporary person. It helps me understand who I am and the world in which I become myself.

Of course, I feel my inadequacy in keeping up with contemporary literature, certainly in reading it but also just in knowing about it. I have a box full of lists of authors and book titles I've noted, and many magazines with book reviews await me. But I try to be aware. Working in bookstores during and immediately after graduate school helped me with this: I saw books coming in constantly, and I touched hundreds of them every day.

I wanted to teach this class in order to to show this to students who may, like me, not know how wide and delightful the range of contemporary literature can be or who think they don't like reading because their experience is too narrow via the dreaded high school English reading lists. I will be reading these totally new essays, stories, and poems along with you, discovering them and expanded myself as a reader, lifelong learner, and writer.

Why I Write.

I wrote this for the introductory discussion in the creative writing class I'm teaching:

Writing, along with reading, is what I anticipate and hope for each day. I work hard through the day in order to earn time with my journal. Journaling is one of my greatest joys, and I use it to capture other beauties and details in my life. I use it to explore ideas, questions, and plans and to practice detailed description. Like drawing, this also forces me to pay close attention.

I love the satisfied, chest-opening feeling after I've finished a story or poem, even if it's not very good. I love the freedom and racing sense when I push through inertia and start a story or poem despite the fact that I have no idea what to write. The characters, images, and narrative always come as if by magic.

I surround myself with the tools of writing: colorful notebooks, journals, and pens; bottled ink; books. These comfort me, push me, and remind me who I am.

I've been writing stories since I was five, writing poems since I was fourteen, and keeping a journal since I was fifteen. I dedicated myself to four years of focused study on creative writing and literature in college after finishing my core classes.

When I read, I evolve as a writer. When I eat a great meal, travel, observe a beautiful art work (painting, photo, garden, craft...), have a deep conversation, or see a stranger who seems likely to be a fascinating character, I store all of this, consciously or not, for my writing life.