“I want to believe
that if I get the story right…”
Nick Flynn, “Father Outside”
Sunday I sit at the computer pulling my words and photos into a new form, something palpable. A book. January and February already feel like a lifetime ago, back when I took photos of my funky shoes against the yellow and cream floor tiles or christened the year with my stated intentions: Practice. Reverence. Play. The cats atop the refrigerator, another tumble of vegetables chopped on a vinyl cutting board. It may be a thing of midlife, this awareness of how quickly my days scamper into the past. Already I’ve left behind the birthday cake Britt and the kids baked for me in Fort Collins, how carefully Lewis spread the frosting. Already FG and I have lost our tans. Already those students have gone; new ones have taken their place.
And so I’ve been saving them, those days, tugging them toward the page one paragraph at a time. The night Maryjean brought over four paintings of Annabella and propped them on the counter. The weekend I spent folding clothes into black trash bags before handing them to a cheerful man at Goodwill. The white peacock strutting a South Austin street. Even as I slip into the future, the past keeps creeping forward. My father had been gone four years when I photographed his pale blue cap. The thickets of winter brush had been cleared before we spent a mild March Saturday planting. James had left his house empty when the wisteria floated its purple tendrils toward the ground.
I’ve chosen not to wear a wristband that tracks my steps and heartbeats and how often I roll over at night because I say I don’t want to know so much about myself. Really I don’t want another form of self-examination through which to filter my days. I take a photo. I write a paragraph. I capture the bright noon when I read a poetry manuscript over a bowl of bi bim bap. The twirl of a woman’s dress as 8 ½ Souvenirs spun its jazz. I want to believe that if I get the story right I’ll hold onto some of it, this moment smack dab in the middle of my life. Not too old. Not too young. It is only September, month when the nectarine’s skins wrinkle too fast. I want to remember, to really remember, what it meant to be right here.
September 15, 2015
Some days are noteworthy only in their lack of noteworthiness. Granola in the morning. Old pajamas, the cotton worn soft. The computer monitor on the dining room table you know you should move. At the office, there is a spot open in the parking lot. At your desk, nothing pressing. The whole day, nothing pressing. Scratch a line through an item on the to do list. Scratch off another. Drive home through the neighborhoods and rest on the carpet while your husband sautés broccoli. Notice how fat the cat has gotten. Writing circle. Words on a page, written in marker, take you back to the french-fryer at Wendy’s when you were 15. Close the notebook. Listen. At the end of the day, nothing much happened. Exactly as you had hoped.
August 25, 2015
(Written in writing circle 8/18, spool pulled from a jar on the table.)
It is my grandmother’s thread—wood spooled, pastel colored, beeswaxed, 19¢, fast to boiling, a term I imagine on a standardized test of the past. In my linen closet, on the floor, in a shoebox for shoes I forgot many years ago, a box of thread. Needles in packaging with fonts from the fifties. A pin holder like a bright ripe tomato. It’s still where I reach when a button needs reattaching, a hem tidied. My grandmother’s thread, though she died when I was 10. My grandmother’s ring that I wear next to my own wedding band.
So much on this spool I don’t understand. Belding. Size 50. Mercerized cotton. Driving home the other night, Chris says it must be hard to be young and keep up with all the new terms. We were talking about FOMO, his new discovery that describes so many of his life’s decisions. No, I say, it is hard to be old and keep up with the new terms. It is hard to be modern and keep up with what came before. This thread, bubble gum pink, no baby doll pink, no ballerina pink, this thread cotton candy, sunset, ball gown, the color of the homecoming dress I wore at 17.
There is a kind of capable in it for the woman who knew how to read its codes, who chose it understanding its size and shade and kind of cotton would help her create what she intended to create. She knew what she was doing, the woman who pulled this thread from the many and paid her 19¢ and brought it home. She could have been my grandmother, who disliked her lumbering body but used it to tend the new mothers in the maternity ward and stop at friends’ to check in and bathe her own cranky mother-in-law in tar to tamp down the eczema. My grandmother was capable, was strong, knew what she was doing when she did it.
August 18, 2015
I don’t know any of them, the writers who show up early Sunday morning for a day of practice around the folding tables of the Writing Barn. They are drafting picture books and novels, dissertations and short stories. All morning the keyboards rattle gently and occasionally the doors squeal to shatter the silence. We stay at it, lunch under ceiling fans on the porch, return. Outside, I walk a circle down limestone gravel paths, under live oaks hung with chandeliers, past funky chairs. Once more Austin steps forward to greet me before sending me back into the world.
July 12, 2015
How you return to it and find the life you were living then — two weeks, two months, two years ago. A time between losses, you said, and within minutes your family erupted and loss of a different kind came at you. And here you are. It is 6am. The week is beginning, a week in which you have so much to do. Then pen you use is the same, the notebook peeled back to reveal more blank pages to fill. What was it you intended to say?
July 6, 2015
“Everyone deserves a chance to walk with everyone else.” — “Hero,” Family of the Year
I spend my third day wandering and remembering how wandering connects me to my creativity. Seven miles in and around the city, past the crowds and down quiet pathways. Out the boardwalk and into the city center, onto a stool at the counter of a loud diner where I read The Sun and drink coffee. Into a store or two and back out, down past the construction cranes. Then I sit with a watermelon agua fresca at the cafe of the disgraced cycling star and the story begins to come. It’s like it was when I was a graduate student, me and my notebook and a table somewhere with the music I didn’t choose piped in above. Words on paper that might become something. On a Sunday afternoon in almost-summer Austin, I am one of many women in a tank top and skirt, cap on my head, women on bikes and on foot and walking with daughters wearing the same outfits. We have somewhere to go, or nowhere to go. Later, on the Congress bridge, I help two older tourists find their way to a CVS. I walk past so much of my history up on the hill and through the streets of Travis Heights. Back home I lie on my bed, cats at my feet, looking for the first time at the paper. I’m not ready for the book review, for all the novels I may or may not read this summer.
May 31, 2015
It’s a romantic idea, the writer at her desk behind the house all day, hammering out the work while the rest of the world keeps throttling forward. But here at my own private Yaddo, day two, it doesn’t feel romantic. I am fighting the urge to straighten the papers, vacuum the rug, spray cleaner over the whiteboard to make it pristine. Instead, I sent submissions into the ether to readers who may or may not want to read them. I ran the cranky air conditioner and waited out an afternoon rainstorm. A mosquito snuck through the door after me and buzzed my ears. My backyard studio isn’t Yaddo, even if I will it to be. But it’s where I spent the day, engaged in this thing that is sibling to the thing the real Yaddo-ians are engaged in at their cabins in the woods, romantic cabins where they surely feel nothing but productive and alive. So I finished the day streaming back-to-back episodes of Girls to see how they handled the writing workshops at Iowa. Like my day, it was way off and reassuringly familiar all at once.
May 30, 2015
My friend has gone to her cabin in the woods and I am cheering her all the way. My husband wanders the early morning streets of Culver City, unable to sleep in a new time zone. Another friend carries my backpack for a hike in Yosemite. Next year my mother will cruise to Bora Bora with her own room on a ship that serves afternoon tea. And this weekend I am home alone with cats and mosquitoes and the studio I love best and not a plan in the world besides having My Own Private Yaddo, right here. I make my list early, these things I shall do:
In Day 1, I manage the first four, and while I walk, the city keeps being a city and a shopping cart tilts in the river.
May 29, 2015
Marie, Jennie, Norma, and Pauline (squatting) at the Grand Canyon, 1946
Those years I worked on the book about my grandmother’s cross-country road trip, I thought I knew what I was doing. I had found the story my writer self had been waiting for, the story of women and travel and legacy, of America in two different generations, of the pull between home and away. I researched and planned and dragged myself and some friends over 7,500 miles of the country because I thought I knew what I was doing. I was writing a book. Almost a decade later, there is no book. But there is today’s phone call with Marie Spino’s grandniece, who discovered something of her aunt in the blog I kept about the trip. A few years ago it was Norma Fontanella’s grandniece I was talking to. These women who didn’t have children are still fascinating to the women who came after them, just as my grandmother is still fascinating to me. And after the phone call in which I found out about Marie’s impeccable home, her frankness, her years at the Fairfield Dress Company and ultimate return home with just a suitcase, I realized I may not have been writing a book after all. I may have been creating the space for women today to connect to women then, women who were ahead of their time. Maybe that is all, and maybe enough.
May 22, 2015
After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world. — Philip Pullman
In front of the wood wall at Malvern Books, they brought their stories. The girl next door seen anew. A pit bull in the back yard. A return to Antibes. Two sisters and their swagger. A photo of a father. Daddy, cleaned up and beloved. Poodles and a Mercedes Benz, elders in song. Praise the courage to stand up and say your truth. Praise the audience overflowing the chairs. Praise laughter and listening and cheese cubes eaten from toothpicks. Praise the thoughtful way Charlotte affirmed those stories for all of us. Praise community, generations, the tinkering with a phrase to get it right.
April 19, 2015