September 28, 1998
"Hollywood & Vines" (July 1994)
I squinted through my window, an insomniac again. Without my contacts in, I could see only the reflection of headlights in the chrome bumper of the car parked on the street, otherwise, I'd not have known it was there. I caught the shadow of a man walking by and I remembered the homeless man I'd wanted to take a photo of yesterday.
He has built himself a little home under the 101 bridge on Argyle. He's just blocks away from the most famous intersection of this city (and perhaps of this era), yet he pitches tarp over two grocery carts like he's on a campground, unaware of the stars in the eyes of younger passers-by. He's a scruffy looking man, confident, as if he's been doing this for quite some time, and he doesn't seem to resent the stares he gets from drivers of Porches, Mercedes, Jags, and even White Ford Broncos as they wait nervously at the red-light, counting the beats until green.
They feel more uncomfortable watching him than he feels at being watched.
His collection is impressive. Two grocery carts, orange tarp, several large boxes, a bottle of wine, extra sweat suits, a baseball cap, four bags of recyclables, and a mostly-dead flower arrangement next to a push broom, used to keep the carts parked.
Days ago, I was at that red-light, counting beats before green, and I wanted to photograph him, take a piece of that image back Home with me.
I am trying to escape, yet I want memories to come with me... only the good ones. This has been hard for me, living here, and I know that I've begun to reach out and around, a vine stretching to find room to grow. Yet I'm ready to cut myself just above the roots again, pick up and move on, leaving what I've woven here to dry up and decay alone.
Days later, the man is gone. He has left all of his belongings, with the exception of the wine, under the bridge for others to dig through. The home he occupied for weeks is now dark, cold. I realize that the pieces of ourselves we leave behind do not die alone. Our vines are intertwined. Everywhere we go.
September 26, 1998
"Waterlogged" (July 1994)
"On your marks, get set, GO!" Coach shouted as we plunged into the water and began our free-style swim.
The water felt cold this morning, but I warmed up with each stroke forward down the Olympic-sized pool. Since this was just practice, we were swimming without having the lanes sectioned off and that meant I'd probably get bumped into by Marcy Dell if I didn't get a very quick start.
That's why I don't like swimming with nine-year-olds, they're such pains. When we break down into age groups for competition, the girls my age always know what we're doing. It's those dumb nine-year-olds that mess us up.
I tagged the shallow end and did a decent flip-turn as I began the final lap. I was feeling good; like I'd already beaten my closest competition, Sarah Filmore. She always gives me a good challenge here, and we hate each other at school, so it's perfect. That way she can't get to know me well enough to see my weaknesses, and I can keep up the image of The Best Preteen Swimmer.
I heard the whistle blow just as I touched the wall and I had to look up quickly to be sure I'd won. I had, but not by much. Sarah smiled at me and I smiled back. That's about as close as we get.
Coach had to go and get Marcy Dell from the side and redirect her to the deep end. Not all nine-year-olds are that bad, I guess, but she just lacks any general sense of direction. Good thing she's pretty.
I know pretty is important when you're not talented, and even sometimes when you are, because my Daddy told me not to ever get fat or ugly or else I'd never keep a husband. It didn't matter that he remarried someone really ugly and that she eventually got fat too; I took those words to mean everything and did anything I could to be the prettiest, thinnest, best everything possible. But things weren't working out so well at the pool.
"Jones, McGuire, Turner, Filmore, Young..." the coach was calling the names of those who'd be on the starting team at next week's competition against the Lakeside Pool team. I sat on my favorite rainbow towel watching droplets of water fall off my hair and soak into the concrete as I leaned just off to the side when Coach said my name, "Perkins," as I knew she would. But then she said, "Stay after practice," listed four more names and then sent most of us on our way to change and go home.
I didn't cringe when she asked me to stay after because I knew why she had.
Butterfly stroke. My worst nightmare.
"Well, Katie," Coach began, "how's that Achilles' Heel coming?"
"I've been practicing," I lied, my towel now wrapped around my body as though it would keep her from making me get back in the water.
"But are you any better?" She added, "You know that you're my fastest swimmer, don't you?"
"Except the butterfly."
"Except the butterfly." She now had her arms crossed and was nodding, then she pointed back at the pool. "Ready to give me what you've got?"
I shrank inside. My dad was coming to pick me up today and I didn't want to be late. But I knew I had to practice so I begged to just do two laps.
"Make them two exceptional ones," Coach required.
As I hit the water this time, I felt hot already. I knew my coach wanted me to get it RIGHT, but all I could think was FAST, and that meant SLOPPY. I could hear her yelling as she walked the length of the pool, instructing me to concentrate.
When I got to the end of the second lap, I saw my dad outside the gate, waving and half-smiling. Although I knew he was glad to see me, I also knew he liked me to do my best and he'd say that he didn't feel that I was just then.
Before I could get out of the pool and collect my towel, Coach went over to him and began talking through the gate.
As they discussed me, I was sure, I felt myself trying to be prettier, willing my features to be better. I even closed my eyes and prayed that the candy bar I'd eaten yesterday wouldn't show.
I took a deep breath and walked toward Coach and Daddy.
"Get your things, darling," he said. And even though I knew he meant it literally, all I heard was, "Not good enough. Not pretty enough. Not thin enough."
September 25, 1998
untitled (7 August 1993)
Coffee makes me think of Cleo.
I smell her kitchen on days too hot for coffee...
perk perk perk on the stove.
The ashes and butts in trays,
Under the table cloth her elbows stick to - the newspaper clippings -
with the sugar on the table, puzzle books
and playing cards in the window sill.
She always hung up without saying good-bye
and walked to the window as we drove off.
Love your baby.
September 24, 1998
Revisiting the Past (Spring 1998)
We all know the importance of keeping a journal. A safe place to record our thoughts, fears, wishes and dreams is essential to our ability to "sort it all out." The purchase of a blank book is an exciting event. We know that our next few months, or years, will all reside between the covers. We choose that journal carefully.
Dutifully, we show up at the page every day, summarizing our experiences, fleshing out our new ideas. But how often do we pick up an old journal like a good book, eager to discover a new character and her stories?
If the answer is "not often," then it's time to do yourself a favor.
Recently, I began writing about my need for an epiphany. God, if I could only sort out my life and understand myself better! Instead of writing, again, about my confusion and worry, I opened a journal from seven or eight years ago. I picked a page and began reading.
At first, I reacted to the words critically, "Oh, c'mon, you know better than that!" "That's not how you spell that!" "What was I thinking?" I got over the self-editing in short order and began warmly remembering the sensations I'd written about. I could feel the emotions, but in a safer way. Of course, these experiences are a part of my cellular memory, so the feelings are still there, somewhere. But now I experience them from the perspective of an onlooker... with enough inside information to really appreciate all of the characters.
As I read on, I discovered dialog with myself about an issue similar to the one I now faced. Wouldn't you know it; the epiphany I was looking for was there, in my own handwriting, just waiting for me to need it.
No one knows you better than you do. The next time you feel the need to pick up a self-help book, consider the Self who wrote it.
September 23, 1998
"Fortunate Sheets" (11 August 1990)
September 22, 1998
"The Connection" (March 1996)
First of All...
My approach to writing has much less to do with mechanics than with intuition, spirit, and a sense of connection to the process of creativity. Throughout this piece, I will attempt to link process to product - rather, I will try to EXPOSE the links that exist between them. Balance is essential in the approach of any creative endeavor. Without a sense of balance, we do our art a disservice.
Of course, not everything that works for me will work for everyone. But what would be the point of omitting something that works for me when it just may work for someone who reads this piece?
There are dozens of works that have influenced my choices in writing. Some of these things may work for me today and may not tomorrow. Still, I've listed the works that come immediately to mind at the end of this piece. Within this piece, I will examine a few of them closely and I will attempt to connect the inner work with the physical work necessary to bring art OUT.
Borrowing from Julia Cameron...
The Artist's Way came to me at a time in my life when I had no idea that I was ready for a "major growth experience." I had moved to Los Angeles, alone, with no job, and immediately connected with a popular actor through a volunteer mentoring program. The week after I began working with the kids, my new friend created a group called "The Artist's Circle" for the purpose of conducting weekly sessions as suggested in Julia Cameron's book. I eagerly joined in, ready to have a sense of "home", wherever I could find it. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I had TRUST.
Here it is, two-and-a-half years later, and I am still growing from having opened this wonderful book. It is not my intention to simply quote Julia Cameron, but I would like to devote this section to a few of the "highlights" from her book (Quotes, Unblocking the Artist, and Exercises). Were I teaching a course on creative writing, photography, acting, or any other creative process, The Artist's Way would be required reading.
It is easy to dismiss "self-help" techniques as elements not connected to being a writer. The tough part is recognizing that, until we are connected to our truest creativity, we will not do our best work. Self-help has EVERYTHING to do with the process of tapping into your creative energy.
"Leap, and the net will appear." It takes having the faith to put pen to paper, to read your work aloud, to submit to journals in order to see that you WERE safe in taking that step. It won't look safe until you've done it. And even then, sometimes, you'll wonder how you did it. Don't question - just do.
"Stop waiting until you make enough money to do something you really love." As artists, we con ourselves into believing that we can't afford to "do art" full-time until we've made enough money some other way. We act as if we have to earn the right to devote a good deal of time to creativity. This is not the case. We simply have to begin - money or no money. We'll wait forever, otherwise.
"Creativity is the only cure for criticism." Feed criticism with more time for your art; not with the intention of "fixing" what was criticized, but with the goal of healing.
"Expect the universe to support your dream. It will." That's what the universe does: supports our dreams. When we expect less, that's what we get. When we open ourselves up to prosperity (not by our means - but by those we cannot see), we are more creative... because we are freed from thoughts of financial or worldly success.
"Do not fear mistakes. There are none." (Miles Davis) When we carry around fear, it blocks our creativity. Additionally, it's often the "mistake" that turns out to be the most wonderful part of our finished work.
"Do not call procrastination laziness. Call it fear." That's what it is. Fear of failure, fear of success. We procrastinate when we want perfection. We'll be able to say, if our work isn't "perfect", that it would've been, given more time. Wrong. "Perfect" never happens - so stop fearing work that isn't perfect.
Enthusiasm: from the Greek 'filled with God.' When we enthusiastically take on a task, we are not alone in undertaking it.
Unblocking the Artist...
Nurturing Friends vs. Enabling Friends. There are friends who nurture us and there are friends who keep us needy. Know the difference. Understand your choices. You won't always choose to stay away from non-nurturing friends. That's okay. Just recognize the choices, and know how they impact upon your creativity.
What's the pay off in being stuck? What's your favorite creative block? There are benefits to being creatively stuck. We all have blocks to our creativity. When we recognize that we are safe when we're not successful artists, that we are happy with actually having some measure of control over where we are - something that we may lose if we let others determine our worth through actually buying our work - we begin to understand the risk involved in tapping into pure creativity. Yes, it's scary. Allow it to be. Move on into it anyway. Back away when necessary. Recognize that you need the block's warmth and safety sometimes, but know when to risk again.
Boundary-setting. Oh, this one is tough. But, boy, is it important! When you neglect setting boundaries within which your artist can comfortably work, you negate her importance. You tell her that taking care of others, dealing with business, and working hard is more important than creating. You neglect MAKING time (and yes, you have to MAKE time; FINDING it is impossible) for the artist and she neglects her process. Set boundaries so that she can breathe. You're not taking yourself seriously if you don't make time for yourself to create. Just making decisions about what really matters to you is freeing. It means you care enough about yourself to take an interest in what's best for you. What a concept!
Image collection. Cut apart magazine images that you find comfort in. If you want a new typewriter, find an image of it. Cut it out and add it to your collection. The images can be of things you want your art to bring you (fame, fortune, material goods), things you need to nurture your artist, or simply things that please you. Visualization is a powerful tool. Create a collage for motivation. Perhaps even construct the worlds you write about with images. You may see something in the images you select that you hadn't imagined on your own.
Create an Artist Totem for yourself. Mine is a totem of runes. The Viking Runes, for me, carry powerful messages and are visually easy to remember. My totem symbolizes Self (Higher Self and personal self), The Journey (of life), and Wholeness (a sense of connectedness with the process). Touchstones are nice in that you have a little something to hold that reminds you of your process, your Journey.
Create a Life Pie. Divide it equally into these segments: Spirituality, Exercise, Play, Work, Friends, Romance/Adventure. Place a dot in each slice that indicates the extent to which you are fulfilled: Outer Circle = Great, Inner Circle = Not So Great. Where are you balanced? Where are you lopsided? When you are out-of-balance in any area of your life, your writing suffers. Recreate this Life Pie every now and then to see the impact simply paying attention to yourself has on your sense of balance.
Rearrange your furniture. This can be a great way to remove creative blocks. Try it!
Applying Spirit to the Mechanics...
In an attempt to connect the process to the product, I often "exercise" my artist. I have selected specific exercises from What If? By Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter that, in addition to those in The Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, provide a regular "workout" for me as a writer. Additionally, I have included personal "hybrid" exercises that have, in a sense, discovered ME.
I do not suggest that writers do these exercises INSTEAD of writing, but that, when the work just isn't flowing, these exercises can serve as a way of "kick-starting" the artist within.
"Mining Memory" - For a week, write down ten things that make you angry, but don't try to explain why. In that same week, do the same for ten things that please you. Be very specific. This serves as creating a way of viewing your immediate world as a "garden full of fictional seeds." I find that the act of NOT explaining what made me angry or happy requires restraint on my part that I usually do not exert. I like to give an awful lot away. This exercise helps me hold some things back and so proves to me that the images themselves are often enough.
"Journal Keeping for Writers" - Write one page a day, playing around with format.
* Concentrate on observation and description, not feeling.
* Do not use the verb TO BE. By avoiding its use, you'll choose more interesting verbs. You'll also be more accurate.
* Experiment with sentence length. Keep the journal for a week using sentences of ten words or less. Then, for a week, try writing each day's account in a single sentence, avoiding the use of "and".
* Switch your journal to third person. Then, try mixing the point of view. Start the day in third person and switch into first person to comment on the action.
* Use an accent.
* Write in baby talk.
* Make lists for journal entries - just a record of the nouns of that day.
This exercise is great fun. It makes me smile just to fantasize about keeping my journal in a DIFFERENT way. When I actually DO it, I find all sorts of interesting ways of saying things. This helps me "get out of my own head" about things.
"Five Different Versions: And Not One is a Lie" - How we tell a story is determined by who we are telling the story to. We add, subtract, exaggerate, play down, tolerate, condemn, and so on, based on our audience. Write an account of a specific situation.
A Sample: You have come out of the movie theatre around seven in the evening and you are mugged. Your money is demanded and you are knocked to the ground as the mugger runs away.
Tell your account of this event to five different people (your mother, your best friend, your significant other, your therapist, a police officer, your child, a priest, a doctor, a lawyer, a judge, a talk-show host, your astrologer, an old college buddy you haven't seen in years, etc.). Compare the stories and notice how you shape and shade the stories you tell based on who's listening, what you want them to hear, and the response you want. This exercise is good for strengthening dialog. The next time a character shares something with another, remember this exercise. Dialog is telling.
"The Enemy's Life"
Week One: Write a scene that brings to fictional life someone you hate. Make the reader hate her. It might be someone who annoys you, whose manner you can't stand, whose voice grates on you, someone who has offended you or done you some harm. Take on someone who is evil on the grand scale. It can be someone you know, someone you know about, or someone based in history.
Week Two: Write the same scene from the point of view of this person, and write it in the first person. "Story and only story is the peaceable kingdom where you and I and the next fellow can lie down on the same page with one another, not by wiping our differences out, but by creating our differences on the page. Only on the page of a story can I look out of your and my and the other fellow's eyes all at the same time."
Spending the week between assignments is important. The first week's assignment is really fun when you're trying to get out of your anger or frustration with someone who has pissed you off! The second weeks' assignment is difficult, because you begin to understand the nasty character... perhaps even better than you wanted to. What's great, though, is that you really do round out that character. In acting classes, I've learned that there are no true "bad guys". Even the most evil character we can imagine has, in his or her heart and mind, a positive justification for his or her actions and choices. This exercise is a good reminder of that aspect. The easy choice is the ruthless monster. The difficult one is the honest character.
Clustering: Gabrielle Lusser Rico's technique from Writing the Natural Way asks that we place one word in the center of a page, use stream of consciousness to come up with the surrounding words, and let that free-association provide a theme or story. The right side of the brain gets "kick-started" this way. Use a few of the elements to create a story. You'll really feel that you are in the element after spiraling words around a page.
Do an interview with your characters. I learned this from countless acting coaches. If you have a block that keeps you from understanding a character with all of the intimacy necessary for a complete story, interview him. Without any of the author's judgments or agenda in tow, ask the character about his history. Ask what brings him to the point at which he enters your story. Take notes as if you are on an ethnographic field study. Notice the richness of the language the character uses. Study the subtleties. Then wait. After about a week, go back and read the original story. How much better do you know the character? Now let the reader in on that growth. You do not need to reveal anything from the interview itself. Don't push; just add in the subtle understanding you've gained.
From The Tao of Pooh...
This poem means a lot to me when my work is criticized for not "measuring up" to certain standards that academics have created. Writing, FOR ME, is a form of personal therapy. I do not write to please others. But, lo and behold, occasionally I do please them. I get published, I win prizes, I gain recognition. So, to all the artists who feel obligated to adhere to rules that go against their inner voice, I quote Benjamin Hoff. "There is more to Knowing than just being correct."
What Works for Me...
After reading the "Nuts and Bolts" section in Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, I've decided to word these tips as rules and state, as Hugo does, "I find the axiomatic tone preferable to a lot of qualifiers. If these work for you, good."
Be aware of what you say to yourself about being a writer for a week or so. On one half of a sheet of paper, write down the negative things. Counteract each of those messages on the other half of the page. You'll be amazed at the amount of negative self-talk you actually engage in, where your creativity is concerned.
Be silly. You owe it to yourself to play. How else can you truly understand characters who take the risks that academe prevents us from taking?
Creativity dies when you dangle a carrot in front of yourself. Do not feel as if you'll only be rewarded when you are creative enough. Recognize that creativity IS the reward.
Don't feel that anything isn't worth writing down. You may write something, put it away, forget all about it, and then come across it years later, only to find that it is exactly what is missing in a piece you're currently working on. You just weren't ready for the entire story when you began.
Drink hot tea. With honey. It soothes the soul.
Eat what you want, when you want it. When you are writing, if you deny yourself the little things you crave, you will resist the messages coming to you from your subconscious. That's where our cravings AND our artistic impulses lie. Don't stifle that voice. Ever.
Explore minutiae. Details, details, details. They mean so much.
Fictionalize reality. Your best friend shares a story with you that has you rolling with laughter. Write it down. Cut out the stuff that's boring. Add details that were left out or that didn't exist. Give the true story as much as it needs to "click". Take a small notebook with you everywhere you go. You'll never know when a story's waiting for you to find it.
Find inspiration in everything. When a classmate questioned my inclusion of Richard Bach's Illusions on my reading list for this project, I was surprised. I thought that every writer, every artist, found inspiration in just about everything! No, the book doesn't include any tips on writing - not any that are spelled out as such. But, the book does provide lines such as, "The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure." For me, that line alone frees me from the everyday quests that dictate how life is lived for most people... and for me... most of the time. A reminder that the joy of living, writing, BEING is in the process - not the product - boosts my creativity (and, HEY! I end up with a product to boot).
Get "out there" what's in you. Share your writing with others. Get feedback. Take only SOME of it seriously. Some feedback is just plain destructive. Even when a group is assembled for the purpose of providing constructive criticism, personality conflicts, jealousy, and competition creep in from time to time. Create a personal "filter" for what is constructive and what is destructive, and give credibility to the feedback accordingly. Try not to take things personally, even when you want to scream, "Hey! That's my baby you're talking about!" Scream that out at home later.
Habits are "economical" to our energy, to our conscious and mental processes. That's why we often choose habits rather than getting creative. Economize in wording, not in choice making. It's when we have to work, not choose the obvious solution, that we are creating something.
Have a favorite pen. Don't be afraid to use it. NEVER loan it out.
Keep a pen and paper next to your bed. Write down dreams that wake you up, ideas that pop into your head during the night. Even though you assure yourself you'll remember them in the morning, write the thoughts down right then. That's the only way to maintain the lush details of dreams and images.
Keep away from Poisonous Playmates. Julia Cameron devotes a good deal of The Artist's Way to the ways in which we sabotage our inner artist. One big way is to surround ourselves with people who deplete our energy, friends who look fun to be around but then fill our heads with doubts about our potential. The more positive, life-affirming energy around us, the stronger our artist becomes.
Let the reader taste all of the ingredients in your piece without revealing the recipe you used.
Let your cat lie on top of your work-in-progress. He knows when you need a break from seeing your piece.
Listen to classical music. Its rhythms are inspiring (as is the fact that most of it was composed by men who were much younger than I am now).
Listen to NPR. For me, National Public Radio reminds me that, simply put, the world is a very big place. "Americans" forget that anyone else exists (just look at the term "Americans", hijacked by residents of the United States to refer to them and them alone). NPR also reminds me that there are other ways of speaking. The British accents and sentence structure in the BBC reports get me imagining new possibilities for my characters now and then.
Look at artwork. See writing as creating a work of art and realize what a huge contribution you're making to the world's art collection. Then, deflate your ego and get back to work. It's important enough to put down on paper, but you're NEVER finished.
Maintain enough sanity to function in the real world while being true to the artist. Creation requires just a bit of insanity. The imagination necessary to create entire worlds for people who do not exist (and ones the reader believe COULD exist) is staggering. See everything as a possible story and only come down from that state of mind when absolutely necessary.
Meditate. If it's tough for you to meditate, just see meditation as the sun going down. The stars are always out, but we can't see them until the sun goes down. Don't apply pressure to see the stars. They're there. Just wait to see them. Then use the relaxed state you've found as a source for more creativity.
Never compare your work to anyone else's. You are where you are. They are where they are.
Pet the cat. Remember that your characters need sensory details, just like you do.
Play with toys. If you didn't save any from your childhood, go out and buy a few. Spending several minutes with my Bubbaloons gives me hours of renewed creativity.
Read everything aloud. For me, this exercise sometimes gets me in the bind of writing only for the stage or screen. Still, I even read academic pieces aloud. It's the only way that I can be certain that I am saying what I have intended to say. From there, I can work on the voice.
Read journals from years ago. "Keep a journal" is not on my list because I really don't know any artistic person who doesn't already keep one. I have found, in perusing old journals, material for plot, characters, and deeper understanding of a situation that one of my characters is experiencing. It's a rich resource.
Read others' works. And not always the same "other".
See everything as foreign. If you have not experienced foreign travel, think of a place that you have visited in which everything was different from what you have experienced on a daily basis. Begin to see things in your daily life in the same way that you took in those strange things on your journey. It's more than perception, it's a feeling. Use that feeling to create a sense of wonder for things that your characters experience for the first time.
Shut up the censor. Julia Cameron suggests "Morning Pages" as the best way to do this. When we roll out of bed and force ourselves to create three, hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages of whatever, we keep the censor (left-brain) from coming alive. It figures, "Well, she's up to her foolishness again. I can roll over and go back to sleep." When you go back to these pages, you'll be amazed by how creative you can be when your censor is asleep. Speed kills the censor. Don't let your pen leave the page once you begin.
Sing. Along with the radio, your favorite album, in the shower, in the car, while walking along, whatever. You may just write something... or understand one of your characters better. Know that being creative carries a good deal of overlap with it. Rarely are we artists in one sense of the word only.
Sketch. Again, don't let the censor have anything to do with what you create. Just enjoy the feeling of the charcoal, pastel, pencil dragging across the paper.
Stop writing for a minute. Breathe. Look around. Begin again.
Submit pieces to literary journals and make wallpaper out of your rejection letters. Remember that it only takes one hit out of every four at-bats to make it into the Hall of Fame.
Tag "in the past" to any statements of criticism that you feel compelled to dish out to yourself. Remember that you are LEARNING, always, and that "I can't write poetry," is not a constructive statement in any way.
Take "Artist Dates". This is another of Julia Cameron's suggestions. Once a week, do something really childish and creative. Finger paint. Go to a children's museum (Sci-Trek in Atlanta is great). Fly a kite that you made from scratch. Bake something (even if, like me, you're not quite sure how to work that room where the oven is). Send homemade postcards to old friends just to say hello. Jump rope. This self-nourishing exercise reminds us that our artist is delicate and needs plenty of these nurturing dates to feel safe in exposing herself to us.
Take naps. They recharge the soul.
Tape-record yourself while you drive. I didn't realize until I had to make the drive (in legendary LA traffic) from Hollywood to Universal City for my UCLA creative writing night class that there's a good deal of wasted time spent on the road. Usually, I drive aggressively, commenting on the etiquette of other drivers or attempting to be "first" in the suddenly fast-moving lane. When I began taking a hand-held micro-cassette recorder on my longer trips, I found myself using the time to create characters, scenarios, or to have a "therapy session" on my own. Great way to flesh out some ideas!
Think you're crazy; it frees up what you'll allow yourself to put down on paper. Nothing's too absurd to commit to paper when you're just plain nuts.
Treat yourself like a precious object. The more you cherish yourself, the better you treat yourself, the better your work.
Try to embrace the pendulum's swing. Enjoy both extremes, but work on capturing the motion of the object. Process. Understanding the process is the essential element to getting the best out of your extremes.
Turn off the phone. Who can write when they're busy tending to the rest of the world?
Turn people's quirks into characters. Everything is material.
Write every day.
Write fast, edit slowly.
Write stuff that's really funny. Then write stuff that's tragic.
Write stuff you'll never share with anyone. Ever.
Lastly, for Now...
Writing is a natural thing. Writing well takes practice. Writing from the soul requires balance, attention, and patience.
When you are moved to create an entire would from an image that flashes before you, you have tapped into a place in yourself that is very powerful, yet delicate. Be thankful to learn the path to that place, and visit often. Your work is a gift. Share, share, share.
September 21, 1998
untitled (February 1996)
Shannon Jordan (male)
7th grade SSMS
Mom: Cathy (394-4409
Application of Material
English (Paper Topic:
Jesse Jackson), Social Studies, Science, Math, Reading
Writes L to R mirror
with red pen, color-coded index cards
3/1/93 Shannon's teacher
had him contact me. Tutor 2x/wk (summer too)
3/7/93 Rec'd letter from Mrs. Webb. Plays in class, brings no homework. Low self-esteem, few friends.
4/14/93 Low involvement. Transferring out of Mrs. Webb's class.
5/7/93 Rec'd good report from Mrs. Emerson. Great attitude in class. Getting organized.
7/1/93 Good work. Excited about 8th grade!
Brian Freedman 7th
Mom: Beth (396-1091)
leaving IRR after 7th grade
Language Arts esp.
grammar (plurals, subj./verb agreement, contractions)
reading very good
3/31/93 Met his mom (high
commitment), contract for tutoring 2x/wk.
4/9/93 Set goals.
5/1/93 When focused,
does good work.
5/21/93 No show! (Baseball
6/12/93 Amazing work.
[Letter from Kids]
Good Luck, Karen!
We know you will do great
We will miss you, but hope you have fun there anyways. Thanks for everything.
[Letters from Karen]
13 September 1993
I'm writing to you from
Los Angeles. It's crazy out here! I'm not tutoring yet I've been
too busy going on auditions! But I wanted to send a copy of my headshot
to you. I hope you like it.
I'm eager to hear how the 8th grade is going for you. I think we did so much good work in getting you prepared for pre-algebra and the term paper class. Please write soon and let me know what's going on. You are a very special young man and I expect great things from you!
Tell your mother hello for me.
All the best,
PS I have your letter
up on my wall. It keeps me going!
PS2- I'd love a school photo. Could you send one?
13 September 1993
I'm writing to you from Los Angeles. It's crazy out here! I'm not tutoring yet I've been too busy going on auditions... nothing too exciting yet! But I did want to send a copy of my headshot to you. I hope you like it.
I'm eager to hear how the 8th grade is going for you. I think we did so much good work in getting you prepared for leaving Resource Reading and entering at the 8th grade level. How are you doing in that class?
Please write soon and let me know what's going on. How's your game this season?
All the best,
PS I have your letter
up on my wall. It keeps me going!
PS2 I'd love a school photo. Could you send one?
[Letters from Kids]
I don't look like this anymore, but this is my school piture for you anyways. Are you comeing home for Christmas? I don't have a tutor anymore.
Shannon Jordan #7
What's up in L.A.? Have
you met any movie stars yet? Did you see
the any famous
people on your audition? I don't have a picture but our team picture is
next week. Shannon's mom moved him out of 8A2 last week but, our lockers
are still near to each others. Are you tutoring? You helped me alot.
"C Ya" Soon,
[Letters from Karen]
Shannon, Ms. Jordan,
I hope this note finds you well. Just wanted to wish you both a Merry Christmas and all wonderful things in the new year!
To catch you up: I didn't end up getting into the school system at all out here. Mainly, it was because of certification requirements and a bunch of other things going on in my life but it also had something to do with the metal detectors at the front doors of the schools. Yuck! What a crazy world!
Instead, I've been on stage, on TV, and running from place to place both for my career and as a mentor in a youth theatre program. I'm paired up with a kid who used to be in a gang. He's VERY talented. It means a lot to me to see a play he's written make its way onto the stage.
Remember, Shannon, it means a lot to me that you do well too. I haven't forgotten all of the work that we did. You and Brian both showed such improvement last year! Be proud! School's tough and you guys stuck with it. Keep it up!
Well, I hope you'll catch me up on what it's like being a big 8th grader! Brian tells me you two aren't in the same homeroom this year. Do you still hang out?
Let me hear from you, Shannon.
Merry Christmas Brian,
I hope you have a great holiday!
To catch you up: I didn't end up getting into the school system at all out here. Mainly, it was because of certification requirements but it also had something to do with the metal detectors at the front doors of the schools. Yuck! What a crazy world! Instead, I've been acting and working with a youth theatre program. It's fun.
Well, I hope you'll send a photo soon. Good luck with your team this season!
[Letter to Karen]
I won't be playing baseball this year. My momma says I need to spend more time in school. I'm doing okay, I might go to my Dad's this summer. If I do, I can swim at his pool and stuff like that with my half-sisters. I can't wait for the summer to get here. I have Mrs. Webb again and she doesn't like me, but you knew all about that. I'll still try to play baseball when I pass reading.
Shannon Jordan #7
[Letters from Karen]
28 April 1994
Unlike you, I can't afford the phone bill, so I'm going to jot this out and then YOU call me (heh heh)!
Couple of things right off: how the Hell did you work this city? I'm assuming that I'm just not "in" with the whole networking, schmoozing, ass-kissing, plastic-breasts, no-talent thing. I'm doing the right stuff, or so it seems, but I can't seem to connect with anything. My agent keeps sending me out on this crap that has me bounding around on a beach and I want to do something of substance. Is it time to change agencies? Try NY? Shift to singing? Do a commercial or two?
Next thing... like I told you on the phone, I'm completely baffled by this tutoring kid's situation. He just needs a little encouragement but his mom is SO hard on him. I know she's doing the Single Mom Thing and that's not easy, but she's making him drop the one thing that gives him any personality (and hope, maybe?) and now he's thinking of going to his dad's. Do I call his mom, write to her, contact her in some way in an attempt to let her know that she doing some damage here? Is that my responsibility? I'm really concerned for his development. You know what a crucial age 13 is! I haven't been in touch with him since I did my usual "Xmas Letter." Is this a good way to reestablish contact??
Okay, so solve my life on those two and then I'll do you. Are you still seeing Jason? You certainly are mentioning him less if you are.... Whatever happened with the NBC deal? Fill me in, sweetie. And come out to LA so that I don't have to be the only one here panicking with every aftershock. WHY would anyone settle a town on a fault line??
2 July 1994
I have news! I'm coming home!! Yeah, that's right; LA isn't all it's cracked up to be. Don't get me wrong, I've loved being out here most of the time but sometimes it's been rough.
Did you hear about the earthquake back in January? Well, it was pretty awful. I have cracks all over my walls and most of my stuff is broken. Still, I know that I'm lucky just for having lived through it, right?
I didn't want to move right away because I really did want to give this place a year. But I've gone on fewer auditions and even stopped mentoring ViDonm. I just don't like being so far away from home.
So, I'll be back before the school year begins (ooh, 9th grade for you... high school! Wow!). I don't know if you need me anymore, but I suppose I'll be tutoring again, just the same. Let's try to talk even if it's just about baseball and stuff.
I'm looking forward to seeing you. Take care & tell your mother hello.
12 July 1994
Well, I made it a year! Yep, I'm going through with it. I've already booked the movers. I'd like to believe what you said about there being more than the choice of LA or Home. Yes, I could come to NY and shack with you... God, that's tempting. But I don't know if I can handle rejection on both coasts. I'm thinking Home is safe and then, once I'm over this whole "LA Thing," I can venture out again. Will you still have me?
Call me when you get his letter (I maxed out the Visa to get a plane ticket... I want a fast arrival home). You know the story!
Love beyond all,
[Letters to Karen]
July 20, 1994
Pack your winter coat, baby! Have I got a birthday present for you! They're giving me 13 episodes and I can have any costar I want! Yes, read that again it's TRUE! Why did you deactivate your beeper so soon?? How am I supposed to reach you with the good news? Just the same, get here. We go up in two weeks! Call me (212) 834-9207 call collect. Hell, just show up! It's on, baby!!
This slipped through the postal service and sat in your empty mailbox for awhile. Found it when we rented the place out to a new tenant (a drag queen!). From the looks of the show, you're doing well. But, we miss you out here!
How are you! I am doing fine. I'm a nineth grader now. I am sorry I didn't write back until now, I hope you're not mad. I have some very sad news. Brian Freedman has passed away. He went on a school ski trip in 8th grade and hit a tree. He was in a coma for a while then started to recover. He came back to school to finish the 8th grade year. In 9th grade he became ill again with a genetic decease. In Late November early December he died. He was a great friend and all who knew him really misses him.
[Letters from Karen]
20 May 1995
I've started this letter so many times, but I can't seem to get it finished. Maybe I keep writing things that need to be written but that you don't necessarily need to read. Who knows? I'm babbling already.
First off, I've moved again. My old landlord sent your letter to me in January. Your letter, Shannon, shocked me. I guess that's to be expected but I can't seem to put the feeling away. I've read and reread your letter, composed several letters to you, to Brian's family, written in my journal, all in an attempt to finish the feeling. Does that make sense?
I'm so sad about Brian. I really am. I think what has me even more emotional, though, is that you wrote to me. I know you are busy with school and you took the time to write to me and tell me about Brian. Shannon, you are VERY strong to have done that. I know it couldn't have been easy for you to start that letter. Does it hurt to talk about it? Or does it help? I can just see you deciding that you have to write me about this. You are a remarkable young man. It means so much to me that you wrote me. I just can't explain. It's weird. I've lost touch with all of my students somehow but you wanted to be sure that I knew. I hadn't heard from Brian since I moved to LA. I know losing Brian has been tough for you and probably for everyone in your school.
I guess I just want to say thank you for writing.
Merry Christmas, Shannon!
I guess you're in the 10th grade now! Is that possible? Are you driving yet?! I hope you have a wonderful holiday and that you and your mother are doing well.
I'm on my own again. The show didn't get picked up for next season. So, it's back to independence (probably for the best). Maybe I'll see if I can do some tutoring.
[Letter returned to sender]
JORDAN: MOVED/LEFT NO FORWARDING ADDRESS.
September 20, 1998
untitled journal entry (2 August 1998)
My father reached deep into the vines, plucking a blackberry from its home. He eyed it in the palm of his hand and then popped it into his mouth, going, "Mmmm," as he let the flavor explode.
He looked at me and asked, "You want one?" I nodded, yes, as though I were being given a special honor. And then, I felt anger. And I felt sorry for my father.
You see, my stepfather took me to his garden a few months ago. He was filled with pride as he pointed out each row of produce growing there. When he spied wild strawberries, ripe at the edge of the garden, he gasped, pointed, and whispered, "Bonnie, look at that!" I bent down and oohed and ahhed, looked up at my stepfather and caught the smile I was hoping for - the one that said, "Pick them!"
I plucked the three, tiny beautiful berries and ran up the hill to show my mother - ran in to wash one for each of us, then, encouraged by Art to eat them all, I did just that. And giggled at the feeling that came over me. "I am special!" I thought. And I grinned and grinned over how sweet my stepfather's wild strawberries were.
My father is stingy with his love like he is with berries. A simple gesture of generosity from him could've changed our relationship forever. But he did the only thing he knows how to do: took care of himself first and turned to me as an afterthought.
My brother Bill was on the path with me as I fell to my knees; breaking skin, swelling, shaking it off. Once he saw that I could walk on back, he moved ahead. He never was around the next corner - (see, I would look, expecting him to notice that he'd gotten ahead of me and wait).
When Uncle Dick saw my bloody knees, he, without a word, went to the car for a first aid kit and began to doctor me up. Bill stood nearby, watching cautiously, as Dick said, "If she were MY sister, this wouldn't have happened to her." I wanted to scream, "Yes! You big bully; you're mean to me and everybody knows it!"
Of course, Uncle Dick was only joking, but it was fun to hear.
I swabbed alcohol onto my deepest cut and begged, "Oh, Bill, come here and blow on it!" From his safe distance, all he could say was, "If that breeze isn't enough, there's nothing my blowing on it could do."
I knew then, "Bill, you have no idea what it could do."
I write this and notice parallels - notice how, for once, I am attracting men who will balance the cowards who hurt me so deeply.
First, there's Art to counter my father.
Then Uncle Dick to Bill.
And, if I think about it, Scott said to me, "No one defines you but you," which really was the flip side to Keith's demands that I defend the life choices that brought me to this moment.
I can only hope that this is the sign of a healing in progress, as I've never let a man help me heal from a man's damage.
The emotion is stuck in my throat. My anger / sadness / pity / pain / rage constricts my throat in such a way that only emotion can. And I pray, pray, pray that I will soon no longer have this sensation. That the wonderful, protective cells of my body will release the emotion they've taken on for 20 years, and allow me to feel it ALL - until it's ALL gone.
I do not want a body that is a scorecard for all that has happened to me in my life. I relinquish it of that duty. There is plenty of room in my brain for memories of all life's journeys. The rest of my body can now begin to let it go. I permit it. In fact, I command it.
Father, please bless the cells of my body as they release the memories to my brain and become the cells that they are meant to be. The scorecard is blank, now. Let it all go.
September 19, 1998
"Drinking It In" (January 1996)
There's these two women sitting across the restaurant. From the bar, I figure that they're maybe 25. But today they're kids; eight-year-olds who just saved up enough allowance to come to a fancy place for something really special.
The longhaired one, I can't take my eyes off her. She throws back those curls with every laugh and wrinkles her nose each time the contents of her glass creep up her straw, surprising her mouth.
The other one, she has a giggle that begins in her eyes just seconds before it escapes her lips. Her long legs, one crossed over the other, bounce and swing along to music that no one else can hear.
Everyone in here is watching them, I'm certain. But these girls are oblivious to everything except their specialty milkshakes. As they lean toward each other to share their secrets, I feel myself move closer - but I don't get any younger.
Maybe I could join them - if I just had the right ratio of vanilla ice cream to milk, some whipped cream, and a straw. But I end up with my usual, a red label on the rocks, tip up the glass, and taste nothing.
September 18, 1998
untitled (18 October 1993)
But I'm not ready to write it down.
September 17, 1998
"58 Days" (9 April 1991)
September 16, 1998
"Silent" (12 July 1998)
The first time I remember being aware of a tingle between my legs, I was seven. My chiropractor, who had cracked my back for three years, ran the vibrating wand up and down my spine, then across my buttocks, then up and down each leg. When the vibrations came back up each leg and toward my behind, I felt something I'd never known before. I sat up and looked at Dr. Odom as though I expected him to explain what had just happened. He never did. And for five more years, I'd feel this way on every visit to his office. But say nothing.
When I was eight, I sat in an assembly with Linda Tran. She asked if I wanted to feel something cool and reached over and pushed down on my pubic bone. "Don't you feel like you have to pee now?" she asked. I never answered.
It was the next summer that I was surrounded by several Cambodian refugees at the shallow end of the Hapeville Pool. They touched me, grabbed me, wouldn't let me get away from them - and chattered in a strange, fast language while they laughed at me, panicking, silent.
In the seventh grade, while the "cool kids" got to leave class to decorate the set for our play about Frankenstein, there was an all-out grab-fest, a preteen orgy, inflicted on the three of us girls by the three boys on the stage. Behind closed curtains, so the cafeteria staff wouldn't see, the boys grabbed our butts, our breasts, our most private parts. It was a game, to them. We returned quietly to class as if nothing had happened.
One year later, and I attend a concert with my cousin and her friends from college. I am 13, with braces, but I'm in her 2nd favorite dress and her friends think I, too, am 20. We leave our seats at the end of the concert and jam into the corridors to head for the parking lot. We are packed like small fish in this space when two men who look to me like Dominique Wilkins press their hands into our crotches and finger both my cousin and me through our clothes. Pushing away seems futile when there are tens of thousands of fans packed into this lobby. Joni and I relate to one another that this happened to both of us but never discuss it again.
Now, I am 16. I am on a date with David Michael Paul. We're in my car, pulled off in an empty cul-de-sac off of Riverside Drive. We've moved to the hatchback, where there's "make out" room. But before long, the kissing ends and I am naked from the waist down, folded in half, with my backside exposed to the world, I feel, as he shoves his hand down into my vagina. Over and over, he forces into me with one hand, while holding my legs down at my shoulders with the other. I am screaming for him to stop and he yells back, "I'm doing this for you!" I stop screaming.
Today, I am 28. I have woken up this morning with vivid memories of these assaults in my mind. I wonder what impact such early violations have had on me. Surely no more effect than having never spoken of them.
September 15, 1998
"Dolores' Pencils" (June 1994)
When I first met Dolores, I had no idea why she collected something stupid like pencils, but she was my friend, and I guess that's enough. Every Friday, she'd wait in front of the school store at Josephine Wells Elementary School, a school we both hated, and carefully pull a nickel out of her overall's front pocket. She kept it there especially for her Friday purchase. Sometimes, most of the time, she'd beat Mrs. Jenkins to the store and would stand in her Keds just waiting for the first sound of Mrs. Jenkins' high heels on the linoleum near the teacher's entrance.
Mrs. Jenkins loved Dolores because she was "our most consistent customer" through all of those years and all of those grades. Dolores loved Mrs. Jenkins because she was the provider of those pencils. Those multi-colored pencils embossed in gold with JOSEPHINE WELLS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, silly as they were, somehow meant an awful lot to Dolores.
I figure they meant a lot because she'd never sharpen them. Not one. She'd put them all in the top drawer of her hand-me-down desk over at her house on Blue Street. Sometimes she'd open that drawer and just sigh.
Every week, she'd take out those pencils - in a very ceremonious way, now that I think about it - and line them up across her desk. Each week, she'd put them in a different order. Sometimes, they'd go by color, sometimes by most recent addition, sometimes alphabetically by color names.
Dolores said that the first one she ever bought was the silver one with gold lettering. She decided to keep it new because it was the first. Well, then the second one was yellow, and that went with her hair, so she couldn't sharpen that one. The next one was gold with gold lettering and it was hard to read. A challenge! She couldn't sharpen that one either. And then there was the shipment of ones misprinted with JOSEPHINE WELLS SCHOOL without the ELEMENTARY - and when Mrs. Jenkins called them "Rare," well, forget that. You get the picture.
I didn't tell Dolores that I thought what she did was kind of creepy until about the 9th grade. By then, she'd stopped buying pencils, even though she did buy one at the school store in high school the first day of 8th grade. But on that day, she found out that all of the high school's pencils were the same colors EVERY week, and kind of lost interest in the hobby of collecting. Now she was just admiring her collection.
When I told my mother about her hobby, she wanted me to stay away from Dolores, because my mother once had a Crazy Uncle George who collected things for no reason, and HER family had always warned HER to stay away. But I didn't. I thought there had to be a reason for the collection and that if I hung around long enough, I'd figure it all out. In the meantime, friendship was enough.
September 14, 1998
untitled (12 July 1998)
She began looking around the place with less selective eyes. "I know he's here somewhere," she convinced herself, since she couldn't, wouldn't go home to an empty bed. Not tonight.
She put another $5 bill on the bar, going against her better judgment. Maybe the trip from pool table to bar to pool table would yield a visual connection of promise something to make her ready to leave. But not alone.
Another cigarette from a stranger's pack. She'd stopped smoking years ago. Bumming is not smoking, to her. Maybe he'll cup his hands around his lighter and lean toward her lips. That'll be a sign that he's the one. Tonight anyway.
If he looks into her eyes as he lights the cigarette, it means he wants her. C'mon look up, look up, look AT ME, damn it!
Inhale, hold, exhale. Flirt. Smile. Be funny.
Desperation must have a scent. It won't let HIM be drawn in. And would she want him if he were drawn to that desperation anyway?
Inhale, hold, exhale.
Finish the drink. Finish the smoke. Walk out alone. Wake up alone. And thank God for little favors.
September 13, 1998
"Belonging" (March 1996)
Cleo's fingers tightened around the handle of her mother's old cast-iron skillet as she tried to remember Edd's words before he left for work that day.
"Mrs. Simonds?" the investigator continued, still using the tone he'd learned from watching his partner go to work in countless interrogations. "We need your statement. Now."
"Of course," she replied as she turned away from the pot-bellied stove. "Did you want some tea?"
Jenkins shook his head and gestured toward the kitchen table. Cleo nodded, wiped her hands on her apron, and joined the investigator in sitting down. The man who came into Cleo's house with Jenkins stayed by the back door. Cleo couldn't tell if he was keeping folks from coming in or keeping her from leaving. All she wanted to do was know his name. Strangers shouldn't be in the kitchen.
Jenkins cleared his throat and suggested that Cleo think about the question again. "What did your husband have to do with the explosion?"
"Edd didn't have anything to do with those power lines," she insisted. "Edd's a hardworking, honest man. He works all day and night so we can keep the young'uns fed."
"Now, ma'am, I'm not disputing that. But we know Edd's in with the union effort. And they ain't up to no good."
"I wouldn't know about that." Cleo glanced at the clock to see how long she had before her youngest came home from school. The kitchen swelled with heat from an early summer and the pone of cornbread going on the stove. She felt a fly whiz past and remembered how Edd had promised to mend the screen.
Jenkins stood up slowly and placed his hands on the little table in front of Cleo. "Mrs. Simonds, I might as well just tell you, Edd's already told us what he did. So, you can go ahead and fill in the rest. We know your husband blew them lines up with those other union supporters." He squinted as he leaned in toward Cleo. "So again, Mrs. Simonds, what do you know about your husband's involvement with the explosion?"
She breathed in slowly. The cornbread must be browning by now. Her ring finger traced the edge of the apron on her lap. "Sir, if Edd told you anything like that..."
"About his PLAN to protest the union block?"
"About ANYTHING like thatÖ then he's a God damned liar." Cleo looked Jenkins over, noticed his partner shifting his weight onto his right leg, then pushed away from the table. "You'll excuse me now, I have supper to cook."
Jenkins straightened his tie and shot a look at his partner. Cleo removed the skillet from the eye with a feed-sack dishrag and spoke without turning to face the men, "I s'pose you can see yourselves out?"
It was two weeks before Edd came home. All three of the kids knew better than to mention his absence or to question the bruises they saw upon his return. Cleo worked quickly to swab iodine on the cut above his right eyebrow. She had Edd's supper ready on the night he came home, just like every night, and he ate slowly, quietly, without uttering his usual, "Good gravy, Cleeter."
When Cleo climbed into bed after tidying the kitchen, she thought Edd was sleeping, so comfortable in his own bed. Moments passed as she began to drift to sleep, then Edd whispered, "It was me." She never replied. And the topic would never come up again.
I was a nineteen-year-old in a Southern History class when I read about The Ducktown 8 and a series of bombings that took place in the 1930s. Union strikes were being suppressed by mine owners and the government, according to my textbook, and bombing power lines was the not-yet-unified AFL and CIO's way of fighting that suppression. I asked my grandmother if PoPo would've known anything about the protest activity, since he was a union worker in the copper mines of North Georgia. Cleo told me stories that sounded far too exaggerated to be anything more than personal fiction: stories of PoPo beaten black and blue, of men in suits coming to scare her, and of having to move every time local police learned that they were the Simonds, not the Simmons.
I was twenty-two years old when my mother asked for my help in sorting through Cleo's belongings. "Belongings" is this ambiguous term we use to describe the boxes of things that accumulate over a lifetime of moving, packing, moving, unpacking, packing, moving, and leaving some things packed with every move.
My grandmother's belongings included letters written by her brothers during WWII - whole sections blacked out by the censors; newspaper clippings from every time any member of our family was "newsworthy," even in the eyes of her tiny local paper; war memorabilia - the stars that hung in the window of her house while her brothers were doing battle - thankfully, none of the silver stars were ever replaced with gold - the sign that your family member in battle had died; faded photographs of people even my mother didn't quite recognize; "dud" shells from Cleo's days of funneling tetryl powder; pressed flowers; a bible; a high school yearbook; buffalo-head coins; and ration stamps for gas, sugar, and flour.
Cleo's stories filled my head as my mother and I placed certain belongings into trash bags, others into boxes marked with the names of each of Cleo's children. Another box, labeled with a big question mark, received anything that we couldn't figure out, such as some of the photos or the papers Cleo kept under her tablecloth for "security." My mother's siblings would attempt to give each of these items an identity.
Once, Cleo told me about her hair turning beautiful golden color when she worked on the assembly line at an arsenal. About bucking rivets in the wings of the B-29 Superfortress. Her stories were always so far-fetched, it seemed. Finally, I know better. Her stories now belong to me.
My mother didn't question why I asked if I could keep the photograph of my grandmother, flanked by her two teenaged daughters (one of them - my mother), squinting and smiling into the sun. I think my grandfather photographed them. I never met my grandfather. John Edd Simonds, PoPo, was dead before the 1960s ended. My grandmother, Cleo, I lived with. My grandmother taught me how to tell a fortune with regular playing cards, how to fill in bingo squares with a sponge-tipped "dauber", to root for the Braves, and that the Simonds are honest people.
September 12, 1998
untitled journal entry (28 November 1994)
It just all seems like such a dream to me: that I ever lived in Los Angeles, that I studied at UCLA, that I worked with the Kovacs, that I ate lunch on Melrose, that I worked on Days of Our Lives, that I had the opportunity to move to New York and removed my energy from that option, that I drank wine at the Hollywood Bowl, that I stood atop my apartment building and watched car accidents getting cleaned up, that I snuck my laundry up to the 7th floor machines, that I had friends and plans and things and places familiar to me. It just feels like it never happened. Yet I'm a different person for having lived those moments. The HOLA kids, the CBS job, happy hour at Acapulco, the Santa Monica Pier... all of these things impact my life still today. In just three months, I've pulled so far away from my LA life. I've also pulled away from what I thought living in Atlanta would be. I'm not writing. I'm not making enough money even to survive. I'm not creating. The only dreams I have are of things that may not even begin for months; if they begin at all. Rather than enjoying this precious time with my mother, I find myself longing for the next time that I can live alone. I'm excited about getting to make new friends, yet I've made none here. It's like I'm praying every day that I just make it, please Lord, just one step closer to The Next Place without killing anyone on the way. Substitute teaching is a drag. Working out is a physical distraction. Sleep is hibernation. Yet there are still seven hours a day left to kill somehow. I'm reading a lot. Watching TV. Daydreaming. Wishing. Fantasizing. Biding my time like a prisoner.
September 11, 1998
untitled (7 June 1998)
There is nothing
like this feeling.
It's the beginning
of the beginning
it is blissful.
left on my skin,
my lips still tingle,
and the rush
is so thrilling
September 10, 1998
untitled (19 January 1995)
This is where I am.
you are welcome to join me
yet I will not compel you
I will not entreat you
I will not beg you.
I will simply invite you
and that I will do just once
and then I will assume
Because this is where I am
and I cannot pretend
to be elsewhere
I cannot attempt
to move in order to have you.
I've come too far to be here
to turn and follow
September 9, 1998
untitled (16 January 1990)
As she wrings her hands
she gives me details
that I don't need,
"The one your father used to wear"
But I don't say a word
because I love to hear
the sound of her voice.
Again - the story
of the time when...
and I realize
her voice is all I know
not the words
"You're getting fat,"
she catches me off guard
and I smile,
knowing she means
MARRIAGE AGREES WITH YOU, SON.
"Yeah, I know - mom."
and she smiles.
Makes me promise to visit
sooner next time
and I pray as I leave
next time will come.
September 8, 1998
"My Mirror" (1 July 1987)
September 7, 1998
"Air Born" (July 1994)
I made my way to my seat, the same seat I always get, on the MD80 and took a deep breath, ready to become the Rebecca I was before the weekend. Despite the fact that this trip would bump me into the next reward category in my frequent flyer exchange book, I never found the flight back to DC easy.
Thoughts of Simon floated throughout my mind, most of them ultra-pleasant and occasionally erotic. He really was good for me, I reasoned, and slipped off my shoes to get comfy.
I didn't really mind that Tyler thought I was on a business trip... let me rephrase that... that Tyler thought Impact SENT me on FREQUENT business trips to Boston. I tried to mind. I tried to be so in love with Tyler that I would hate the fact that I made passionate love while he thought I was scouting out new bands. I just couldn't hate it.
No, I couldn't hate it at all, I thought as I fastened the seatbelt loose enough so that it would count in the airline regulations as being physically on my body without my having to feel it there. I loved having Simon in my life. His style was just so very smooth. Although I typically hated smooth guys, Simon was not manipulative; just super cool and filled with attitude. Perfect. And smooth-chested too. Not a hair anywhere. Tyler, on the other hand, was fuzzy all over. The type of fuzzy that sheds. Hairs in the bed, hairs in the bathtub, hairs on the sofa, hairs in the sink, hairs in the kitchen.... So, I had to have Simon. Yin to Yang. Tit for Tat. Compassionate fuzz in DC and smooth sex in Boston. Perfect.
I wiggled my toes at the thought of getting a hairy hug from Tyler upon my return from the airport. Breathe deeply again, Rebecca. It's another two weeks until your business trip.
After flipping through the In-Flight magazine, I began contemplating a catnap when I recognized a scent lingering in the pressurized cabin air.
Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.
"Rebecca! Hi! I didn't know you were visiting Boston this weekend." A swirl of perfume and an outstretched hand greeted me as my mind whirled.
I cringed as I wondered if I could use my seat cushion as an explosive device.
"Amanda. Hello," I said as sweetly as I possibly could with my jaw clenched. Amanda caught the flight attendant with her fake pink nails and arranged to sit in the once empty seat next to mine.
"Isn't this fun?" she mused and I swear I thought I was going to throw up. "When did you fly out of DC? We could've carpooled to National."
"Well," I began slowly, "I, um, left straight from the office Friday."
"Me too!" she gasped, clutching at her scarf with those long fingers. "I bet we were on the same plane and didn't even know it! What luck!"
"What dumb luck," I agreed. It's not so much that I dislike Amanda, it's that she's always there: at the office, in my apartment building, in my face. She knows me at work, she knows me with Tyler. She knows I went to Boston and I can't convince HER that it was for the company.
"So, what brought YOU to Boston?" Amanda asked that question way too early to suit me. I had to think of something. Think. Think. THINK. Boston. Schools. Fish. Cheers. Doctors. That's it!
"I had to see a specialist." Bingo. Way to go, Becca! Yeah. A specialist. Good answer. I felt proud of this quick thinking and knew I'd just nipped a potentially delicate situation in the bud.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked. Crap. What's wrong with me? Something has to be wrong with me. Oh man.
"Hmm..." I began, "Y'know what, Amanda? I'm REALLY not ready to talk about it." Sounded good. Maybe Amanda's imagination would run wild with ideas of what's wrong with me and she wouldn't notice that someone not so eager to share her ailment volunteered so quickly that she was seeing someone for it.
"Oh." She accepted what I'd said then began, "Well, I was at my cousin's wedding. It was lovely. He did very well for himself. She is quite a pretty girl. They met in college. Went on a cruise for their honeymoon. Caribbean Islands. They left today...."
A wedding. WHY didn't I think of that? A wedding. You would fly out of town for something like that. Damn. That was good. Amanda kept talking as I went from figuratively patting myself on the back to beating myself up over what I'd told her. She's not going to buy it. She's going to want to talk about it some more.
As our airplane took off, I changed the subject from Boston to her current project at work and that kept us busy for about twenty-five minutes. Okay, cool. She DOES buy it and she's NOT trying to talk about it. She actually respected the fact that I didn't want to talk about this. It worked. It worked! Very nice. I was in the clear. I hadn't even prepared for this moment, yet I handled it pretty well.
The next day, I realized that preparing for the moments to come involving my trip couldn't have possibly helped anyway.
"Amanda told me that you're really sick. What's wrong?" Jill was leaning on the frame of my office door, gesturing to ask permission to enter. She was my closest work-friend and it was sweet of her to ask, but there's nothing wrong with me! I was drifting off to plan Amanda's death when Jill shuffled into the room and asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, sure. It's really nothing." I felt my stomach turn as I looked away from Jill's curious eyes and to the stack of demos on my desk.
"But you're seeing a specialist. In Boston. It MUST be serious if you had to make a trip out of DC to find someone who knows how to cure it, right?" Well, Jill was right. But she was right based on a lie that I thought existed only on a Delta jet.
I retreated to the only excuse I could use honestly, "I'd really rather not talk about it if you don't mind." I immediately felt wrong, completely wrong, for saying that to her. But what can you do? You throw words out on someone and sometimes they just fall to the floor. Other times the words drip off of them slowly and ooze down like green slime, staying on them for far too long.
"Sure," I heard her say as though she'd been wounded. "Well," she began, as she moved quickly toward the door, "I'm here if you need to talk." And she walked away.
I closed my eyes and tried to prepare for what would inevitably be the next moment during which I'd have to address this issue. I discovered here that lies grow and take on lives of their own. Great. I can't keep a houseplant alive, yet I've nurtured a fib into a full-grown scam. Maybe THIS is the end of it, I convinced myself. But I only believed the MAYBE part, so I closed my office door and dialed Simon's number.
"Well! Couldn't wait to hear my voice again, couldja?" Too smooth, but hearing his voice did remind me that I really had it bad for him.
"Simon, I need your help." How was I going to present this to him without sounding like the most ridiculous woman on the planet?
"Oh? Well, I hope it can wait until your next visit. 'Cause you know that's how I like to help you."
I was melting as I remembered our forty-four hours together and the Mandarin delivery place we kept in business all weekend. Mmmm.... Stay on target, Becca.
"No. I'm serious, Simon.... I need a disease." That absolutely did NOT come out right.
I told him all about sitting next to Amanda on the plane and my stupid big fat lie and Jill's concern and my upset stomach and all of that and then I took a breath. "So, can you help me?"
"You want me to help you with this mess?" His tone was flat, as thought I'd made THAT bed without him and he wouldn't be getting into it to join me.
"C'mon Simon. What kind of specialist could I be flying in to see in Boston?" Simon seemed to enjoy this side of me: needy.
"Y'know what, Rebecca? I think you need to get caught in this one." Smooth had become smug and I was not amused.
"What?" I couldn't be much more articulate than that. I did not expect this reaction from him and this whole situation was just insane enough to push me into the land of the monosyllabic.
"It's time for you to come clean about us. Forget this job. Forget this Tyler person. C'mon, babe, let's just ride off into the sunset and be together." Wow. He can be so frustratingly attractive when he's laid-back about impossible dilemmas. "You don't need to justify us, Rebecca. Just leave it all and be with me. You like being with me. You love it."
I could hear him smiling through the phone at this game he was playing. I thought of Tyler and his analytical nature and then I thought of a life without hair in the bed, hair in the sink, hair in the kitchen. I thought about smooth Simon and our great sex. But then I remembered that Chinese food gets expensive when you order it EVERY DAY and that I would never earn any money if I lived in Boston because I wouldn't bother getting a job because then I'd have to get out of Simon's bed and I'd never want to do that. I remembered how Tyler's hairy stomach tickled me when he snuggled up to me in the middle of the night, how much I enjoyed being with someone who thought about me so often that he came up with theories about my behavior, and having a great job with people I liked. I liked earning a living and having friends and flying out of National to meet my lover two times a month. LIVING with Simon would be horrible. I would just eat and do it and sleep and do it and eat again and do it some more. Mmmm....
"I have to go, Simon."
"Well, should I be at the airport tonight?" He's so damn presumptuous.
"Good-bye, Simon. I'll call you."
"Whatever, babe." And he hung up. Not angry, not cold, just as smooth and as cool as ever. Hmph. That's Simon.
The knock on my office door surprised me, as I suppose my door being closed surprised Doug, who knocked on it.
"I understand you've been seeing a specialist in Boston," he began. I was witnessing the definition of the term out-of-hand being created. "I didn't realize that anything was wrong with your health. Particularly since I've seen no insurance claims coming through." Shit! Insurance.
"Um, yeah, Doug. Actually, I was just going to file everything at the end, y'know?"
"At the end of what, Rebecca?"
"Of my, uh, treatment?" I felt a nervous laugh escape my lips and knew that I was doing that out-of-the-frying-pan thing and it was getting way too hot. "Actually, Doug, I've got to go. I'm seeing my doctor here in town for a follow-up on my lunch hour. Would you excuse me?" I didn't wait for an answer as I grabbed my purse and pushed past Doug, feeling that he'd assume my erratic behavior was due to this mystery disease I had and would then believe that I really was sick.
It really didn't concern me that the lie was just pouring from me by now. I didn't WANT to be good at this. Lying was hard work and I was ready to resign.
Instinctively, I drove to the apartment I shared with Tyler on Dover Street and parked next to Tyler's car. Good. Tyler was off today. That meant that I could rationalize everything in the environment of his psychology and without having Simon's attitude sway me. I could be with Tyler, figure out how that made me feel, and think again about Simon's offer.
I put my key in the lock of our front door and began to turn the knob when Tyler opened the door for me.
His face was pinched in a look of true concern as he greeted me with, "Honey, are you okay?" He took one of my hands in both of his and led me to the sofa. I began to soak in the emotions that being with him created and then I saw it. On the coffee table. A stunning arrangement of flowers in a GET WELL SOON basket. Amazingly, my first thoughts were that it was very lovely and the gesture very thoughtful.
Tyler began to explain that he had gotten concerned that Jill had sent flowers to the wrong place and he called her at the office so that she could straighten out the delivery. She told him all about my dreadful illness and my speedy departure from the office this morning and about the specialist in Boston. She even transferred him to Amanda, who told him that I looked like a ghost when she saw me on the plane. When he asked about the business trip, neither of them knew how to respond to Tyler. "What on earth have you been keeping from me?" I must be the biggest idiot on the face of the planet. Here I was thinking that I only had the office to run away from. Silly me, life doesn't do things halfway.
"Tyler, I just can't talk about it right now." I felt that this response may work a little better than the one I'd used on Jill had.
The clock chimed in the dining room and I was reminded that I'd only been through a HALF of a day in complete agony. Certainly there was much more to come, I began assuring myself.
"Well, dear, I'll try to understand. Of course, I wish you felt comfortable sharing this part of yourself with me, but if you need time, I can give you that." Tyler paused to brush a stray hair out of my face and then cupped my cheek in his hand. "Sweetheart, please let me know if there is anything I can do for you." God, he is so damn compassionate it just makes me sick. Ha! I WISH! Then I wouldn't be lying! This whole thing was just driving me nuts.
I had to go into the bathroom to wash this feeling off of my face. As I stood at the vanity and looked at myself in the mirror, I asked WHO ARE YOU? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? YOU'RE NOT EVEN SICK AND YOU'RE GETTING GORGEOUS FLOWERS!
I couldn't make myself feel sorry for Tyler. I wanted to because he was so caring, but I only felt sorry for me. I kept tossing around this new decision I had to make. I didn't want to spend more than passionate weekends with Simon. I didn't know how I would ever be able to face Jill again, especially after she spent all of that money on the floral arrangement. I just wanted the universe to re-do the very moment in which Amanda's cousin proposed to the pretty girl in college, eventually causing Amanda to get on MY flight yesterday.
I leaned over and put my head on the marble counter. It felt cold on my face and I began to move around to let that chill sink into my cheeks. I opened my eyes and took in the sight of two toothbrushes next to each other on the left side of the sink. I tried to think like Tyler: analytical. I tried to think like Simon: sensual. But all I saw were toothbrushes. Maybe if I studied them harder, I'd discover something, but I doubted it. It was pretty rare that things just jumped right out and meant something to me.
Then it happened. I saw something that changed my life forever: one of Tyler's hairs in the brush that I use on MY teeth.
I'd never moved so fast. In minutes, I was at the airport cashing my frequent flyer miles into the longest trip they'd buy me.
Boarding now? Good. Serving cocktails? Good. A seat alone? Good. Alone was very good. I didn't trick myself into thinking I'd do a lot of reasoning as to how I got into this situation and where, metaphorically, this plane would be taking me. I just found a seat that was new to me and fastened my seatbelt. Snug.
I took a deep breath and let my body enjoy the feeling of the seat and the tension of the belt, the sensation of being free and the familiarity of pressurized air. I closed my eyes and thought of nothing. It was hard to do because even though I didn't want to figure it out, I did want to, in some part of my brain, remember all of this. Human nature, I guess, to want to label it all and stick it in a box. But I made myself push it out of my mind. The sex, the hair, the job, the moo-shoo pork, the toothbrush I bought in the airport gift shop. All of it. Once this plane took off, I'd be new again. I would become whoever the place I landed in created out of me. I would be an uncarved block, as Tyler called it, ready for... whatever.
The anxiety over what my life had become in the past twenty-one hours overwhelmed me and I fell asleep before the plane left the gate.
"Excuse me," the flight attendant said, tapping my arm, "Would you like to have dinner?" As I looked toward the aisle to answer, I got a load of what was sitting next to me: the most beautiful, chiseled, perfect male specimen I have EVER seen.
Our eyes locked and I answered, "Yes," as though I had maple syrup in my vocal chords.
"Hello," he began as the flight attendant moved down the aisle. "I'm Clayton."
And again I said, "Yes."
September 6, 1998
"Dr. Molson" (June 1994)
Simon was still a dear friend of hers; although he could never understand why Rebecca chose to name her kitten after him. He vacillated between being flattered and annoyed. But that's the way he spent their Relationship too. Just because they'd downgraded things between them to a lowercase-R relationship doesn't mean he should begin to understand her any better.
Although he often found her emotional tirades sort of quirky, he still figured that Rebecca was the type who could really benefit from just a little therapy.
"She's the kind of woman," he once described to a drinking buddy, "who thinks the spotlight that shines on her while she's living her life is a whole lot brighter than the wattage on the bulb would indicate." The two men clinked beer bottles over that one. Something about that last round of Molsons elevated them to doctors of psychology.
Rebecca loved Simon, or at least he felt as though she really did. And he loved her. But there was some sort of strange cosmic imbalance that allowed them to remain friends in a universe where that stuff just doesn't happen. But he still had a hard time petting the cat when he dropped by Rebecca's apartment. It was just too weird.
Today, Rebecca was going on about some woman that she worked with who, she was convinced, was "the type of person who tells vegetarians there's no meat in dishes containing meat just because she derives pleasure from imagining their bodies rejecting the meat while their minds feel so righteous over being above eating the flesh of other animals." This was another of those observations that was going to require a few rounds at Melear's to sort out.
Simon held Simon in his lap and wondered how Rebecca could ever take herself and her life as seriously as she did. But he found himself nodding anyway, as though he was registering this conversation somewhere in his brain - and not just the sound of her voice.
"Oh! I have got to tell you about this guy at work!" Rebecca began. Simon watched as Simon jumped off his lap and went to his food dish to inspect its emptiness. He wanted to be interested in Rebecca's new "find," but he found himself wondering if she'd be having this same dialog with Simon-the-Cat if he weren't around.
"Clayton," she smiled. "That's his name." And all Simon could wonder was if, within the next year, there'd be a new pet in Rebecca's apartment or if she'd just re-name Simon.
September 5, 1998
"Stress Monster" (June 1994)
"I'm such a Stress Monster," she told her cat as he stretched and purred, not a care in the world.
"I know you think I'm calling you my precious baby and paying attention to you, but I'm really just trying to get this off my chest. I feel so set up! It's like everyone else in the world knew what I was getting into but me. And now, here I am, hopelessly dedicated to a job that's killing me." The cat rolled over and flipped his tail. He didn't care what she said, but her tone had gotten harsh and he knew better than to confuse this with baby talk.
She twirled a lock of hair around her finger and kicked her shoes off in disgust. "Panty hose! Puh-lease! Why on earth do I even bother? I sit at my desk and shrink when I hear people screaming at each other, but I scream for joy when all of that good stuff comes. Like today. When the single hit #4 with a bullet, we all danced around the office. They said it'd never break the Top 5! But, within two hours, my head was spinning - and not from all the dancing around."
By this point, the cat had moved off of the sofa and into the kitchen to inspect his food dish. Rebecca just kept on talking.
"Oh! My aching head! I know the good times balance out the bad - they really do; but I'm afraid I'm not cut out for this corporate world. So what if it's the entertainment business? When it all comes down to it, I roll around on a plastic pad behind a desk all day and that makes me no difference than my parents. And they worked for 40 years, Simon. Forty years!"
Simon looked up from his Sliced Veal in Gravy, licked his whiskers and went back to munching. He was not interested in Rebecca anymore.
"Oh, pooh!" she finally summed up. And as she flopped across the same bed she'd had in college she wished she could go back there, to that time and that mind. But she knew too much now. She'd always work.
The next feeling she sensed was physical: Simon's whiskers on her ankle. "That tickles!" she giggled. And for another day, the Stress Monster was gone.
September 4, 1998
"Manhattan Beach on the 3rd of July" (8 October 1995)
The breeze was lyrical
The conversation crisp,
as we sought out a Steadman for Stephanie
and a Southerner for me.
We stood on a crowded balcony
Watching the sun trying to set
and discussed things much smarter than we were
because that was what was required
to be "in."
I wanted then to walk into the sand
take my shoes off and feel
the cooling grains beneath my toes.
I wanted to take my buzz from a few drinks
out into the beach. Kiss the West Coast
Even before I knew that I was leaving.
But I stood making eyes
at anyone who'd look
and I laughed at every joke
even though I already knew
I took another sip of LA
and I can still taste it on my lips.
September 3, 1998
"Giving Her a Voice" (9 August 1995)
Quietly, she watched
knowing everyone else knew more
about what she saw
being done to her life.
She'd been told, she'd been shown
that image is everything
So she had the finest one
She shined the brightest
She charmed them all
And it was easy for her to follow the rules:
be good, be the best, be sorry when you're not.
Because her voice was not her own.
When she spoke, she used the words she'd been taught,
not the ones she came here with.
When she whispered, the voice was hers.
And no one listened
Or maybe they just couldn't hear her
Still, she learned to be heard in other ways:
I'm sick, I'm out of money, I'm emotional.
Oh, how she loathed herself for using these channels!
But how could she keep up the image,
follow the rules,
and still be heard?
She began to question
all she'd been taught, all she'd been shown.
She realized that they
didn't really know what they
were doing to her.
They couldn't explain what she saw.
They used rules to keep her quiet
because their rules kept them that way.
that if her whisper were audible,
it'd be a scream.
She began to speak louder,
hoping someone, somewhere
They weren't aware of what they heard at first
because they'd never listened for a voice from her before
But it was there.
And now it's here.
September 2, 1998
"Doodles" (14 March 1991)
September 1, 1998
untitled (1 February 1991)
And with sarcasm I recognized as the biting, hurtful kind my father uses,
as far as I can remember,
I hurt someone else....
I looked in the mirror and saw the sharp features of my father on my face
And wished I could throw something heavy into the reflection, sending him crashing to the floor.