Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Essay a Day #14: Harmonize, Entropy, Light

Drafter's Note: I accepted Essay a Day as a challenge, and that is certainly what it's been. A far cry from the official plan, but if I can squeeze one more essays out after this, that'll be an Essay Every Other Day, which I'm pretty darn proud of.
Today found me without much in the What to Write About Ball Pit, so I lifted a page from a college professor: randomly select three words (thanks, random word generator--less romantic and relational than Fuller's jar of words, but it got the job done) and write until you've used them up.

It's that word that catches me, that confirms this is what we're doing tonight, letting the fingers fall and the characters stamp until everything is used up, an erroneous but alluring image of me panting, hands cramping, semi-collapsing across the table. My need to make writing a sport.

I remember the first time I found this word--how many of its brothers do I remember so clearly? But I remember this one: Mr. Stil's biology class, and one of my early tastes of Holy shit I don't understand this in the least. I was that kid, for all of elementary and middle school--with the exception of math, which I had learned to carve out a hole of energy for, all other learning just found a place in my head and rested peaceably. But now, freshman year, with this oddly funny, oddly attractive man at the blackboard, I have been hoodwinked, and this test has snagged me with hooks of unpreparedness and fear. Stil hands the tests back days later, and I am appalled at the number at the top. I skim through, eager to prove another handful of points should rightfully be mine. And there, maybe halfway down the page, is my chance. I had circled something else--a familiar, friendly word--but his red pen has flagged c) entropy. "I've never even seen that word before," I say, all intellectual fifteen-year-old bravado. And I can see Stil's face, more puzzled than annoyed, as he clarifies that it was in the book, so he certainly hopes I have.

I think this is why I have fond memories of Stil--he was funny and charming, and he understood and accepted that biology wasn't going to be the subject that drove me wild--but still expected me to bring every ounce of intelligence I had to it. Other teachers, surely, had done this, but he did it well. I rose to the challenge with him, and I don't remember what my final score in the class was but I could still sketch you a reasonably passable cell, can vaguely picture the four building blocks floating in a double-helix--the fractures of light that spill across textbook pages and chalkboards ten million minutes ago.

He knew I was a humanities girl, and didn't try to change that--but didn't let me slump in the back row, either. I was allowed to learn like I needed to, to dwell on the things that caught my attention, but I had to learn entropy, too. He expected me to apply this brain to things that made it wince, to what didn't come naturally. He made me work, and called me out when I didn't, when I started to slide. He taught me to educate myself, to harmonize what I knew with what I didn't, to marvel at the way a word nerd's brain will latch on to the tongue twister of deoxyribonucleic acid, never fooled by impostor answer options again.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Essay a Day #13: Never Single

We are leaving a wedding, driving down deserted Maine interstates, watching the way the trees pummel across the outer reaches of the high beams. We talk the way you talk in a dark car on a long drive at the end of an emotional day, where no topic is out of reach and no sidebar is too long tangential.

We talk about this woman, our friend, who is even now alone with her husband in their house, a different kind of dark. We talk about our own histories, loves, losses, the things we thought we learned already. We talk so much I forget about the bag of Swedish fish in my purse, tucked away for a mid-ride surprise.

I say something about being single, and she makes a noise, something akin to a harrumph. “My husband says you’re never really single,” she says, “unmarried, maybe, but never single,” and even as we keep talking my mind stretches and curls around that idea like a cat. I don’t remember where our conversation went to from there—forty-eight hours gone, but the emotions of the day had swamped my brain with saline leaving little room for anything else.

Anything else but this: that no one is ever single.

I have my blood family—relations from Vermont to St. Louis to Oregon—who remind me of where I come from and where we are going, who pass names and genes and character on to a new generation of towheads and tomboys who will play Princess and Pioneers, who will have loves and losses and lessons of their own. After months away, I come home into a strange sort of peace—not sliding into a glove, exactly, but stepping into my mother’s kitchen, which is a thousand times better. Come Christmas, there will be too much food to eat and a surfeit of wrapping paper in every corner, but I will be my own self in a way I am nowhere else.

I have my local family here—the nieces and nephews who have lost the quotation marks I used to put around them, the marriage I casually study and hope one day to mirror, the faith and trust and welcome of tested and proved belief. On their couch, at their kitchen table, I find the warmth and breadth of people who have seen every angle of your crazy and love you without reservation, not in spite of it but because of it. People who accept every stumble and mistake, but also lift you to the next challenge, the next lesson.

I have my gaggle (no better word) of girlfriends—some married and others not—who laugh and cry and watch silly movies with me. Some prod me toward what might make me uncomfortable, some secure me, some let me speak into their lives as they speak into mine. Some teach me dance moves, or perch by my stove to watch how onions and water and spices transform into velvety soup. Some just sit with me, in coffee shops or dark cars, and share life in a thousand words.

I have relatives, churchgoers, neighbors, Facebook friends. I have coworkers, cowriters, cojourners—and those that cheer me on from the sidelines. Adam is right—even in the instant, sitting next to Sara barreling down 295, I know he is. I’m many things, but single isn’t one of them. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Essay a Day #12: What You Don't Say in the Speech

Where is EaD #11? Well, that would be my maid-of-honor speech itself, written last week and delivered last night. Unposted, but reflected on here, in EaD #12.

I married off my best friend yesterday. Of course, I use that verb like I was somehow central in the marrying, when in fact I was just holding her bouquet, or straightening her train, or filling her champagne flute. I gave a speech, but I did not speak words of covenant or ceremony over her and her husband. I did not walk her down the aisle, but I gave her away in the way women have always done: quietly, and with tears.

Thirty-six hours before, her mother and I talk across the marble island of her childhood kitchen, two glasses of wine and twelve years of friendship set between us. "You're unrepeatable," she summarizes, and I say this is true of her daughter, too. She recalls angles that I did not see, bonds forged before I could fully feel them. I remind her that depression is, at its root, utter selfishness--seeing nothing but one's own darkness. I could not see until Sydney told me how my dark was bleeding on to and through her, and it was in saving her that I saved myself. So when I say my best friend saved my life when we were eighteen, it isn't hyperbole.

And these are the things that do not find their way into my speech. You don't bring such demons, leashed and shackled and beaten as they may be, into the glowy carnival light of a reception tent, the hum of happiness nearly palpable at your throat and fingertips.

With her mother nights before, your palm on the cold marble brings you back and you remember your forehead pressed to shower tile, contemplating how hard you could manage, how able you would be to crush your own bones and drain slowly out of the world. But in this happy tent there is no place for that thought, and you don't find it again until later.

Here in the tent, you say things that are equally true, and more powerful than those bleached-out memories. You say that you knew you'd have to lose your best friend to her husband, but you'd assumed it would hurt. No one told you it would happen so smoothly, so naturally that you wouldn't notice until it was done. A pain outweighed by sweetness. Faces blurred not by wine but by joyful tears.

How often does the father say, "I'm not losing a daughter, I'm gaining a son"? Poetry I had loved but not fully understood until now. I was afraid of losing her--a truth I had buried in to-do lists and put-on busy-ness. But in the embers of the night, when I call her new last name and both of them turn toward me, I see the truth of it. What is lost is overcorrected by what is gained--not a second person, but a couple fully balanced and filled out by the other. My best friend as she was always meant to be, her best friend as he always aimed for, the both of them together as a united and singular thing. A love let loose into a world that in return will try to darken and crush and drain it--a love in need of allies and defenders, maids of honor, best friends.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Essay a Day #10: Getting This Off My Desk

I love my desk.

My job has been a little frustrating today--nothing special or earth-shattering, I'm not playing "Take This Job and Shove It" or anything--just the little hiccups that make you consider something stronger than coffee at 10:45 in the morning. An "I Love My Job" post right now might be fitting, but I've done that before, and the elements are fairly static.

So instead, let's talk about my desk.

Let's talk about my awesome to-do list, which lives on the desk itself. Taken and tweaked from some ages-past Pinterest idea, I think, the outer eighteen inches of my desk is covered in clear contact paper where I can draw out a to-do list in wet-erase marker, each item with an eager empty box. I love it--it is not only organization but a splash of rebellion, grafitti-ing this office property with hard multi-colored ink. Boxes are checked (or items scribbled out, if more therapeutic means of checking-off are necessary), details circled or annotated, and when the list gets too long (and walking to the kitchen for a wet paper towel is too taxing), the boxes and words just wrap along the bottom and sides. In a word, it's beautiful.

Let's talk about my Legos*. That's right. Legos. All over my desk. I bought them for booth planning--which has actually been quite helpful. I have wads of bricks for shelving, and different wads for furniture, still different wads (these in bright, nearly-brand-perfect green) for signage. My handy wet-erase markers delineate where our booth and its neighbors lie. (My mom bought me a few Lego people--a crazy cat lady, a roller-skated drive-in waitress--for Christmas, but they have still not made the work trip. Sorry, Mom.) Remaindered Legos make up my receptacle for pens and scissors, and even a glance over it makes me an ounce happier--like the castles my brother once built for me, it is absurdly technicolor, similar to nothing in the real world, but it is uniquely Lego and seamlessly impregnable. Those Sharpies are going nowhere.

Let's talk about my organized chaos--or, rather, chaotic organization. I know where every scrap of everything is, but occasionally I am hit afresh by how ridiculous it looks. Like this morning, upon hearing a visiting author come into our office space: I swivel to do a fifteen-second cleanup, tucking this morning's yogurt spoon behind the laptop, recapturing the three escaped pens and securing them back in the Lego fortress. But in so doing, I see this space through someone else's eyes, and should probably be appalled: What's with the barely-balanced stack of cardboard boxes in the corner? Did a breeze blow through, that each pile of papers is fanned out irregularly? Have I heard of folder organizers, whereby you don't have to leave manilas scattered like leaves? Wouldn't a small list work better than those six Post-Its? I hear several teachers' voices in cacophony, explaining how I won't be able to do this sort of thing in a real job.

But it's functional to me, this supposed disorganization, this messy list, these chromatic bricks. When everything else might be going crazy, I know that to spin to ten o'clock is my AMLE folder, while nine-thirty will secure NCTE. I know that the lined yellow Post-It is ridiculous passwords that change too frequently, while the small neon green is a flag for the NCTE book order. This is my home turf, and while anyone else would be terrified of the piles, I am happily at home in them.

And let's not even get into the artifacts of inside jokes, either with others or just with me: the Spy Gnome and BEWARE FEMALE SPIES magnet, the Get Fuzzy cartoon, the card that reminds me to be the Velvet Hammer when necessary, the references to JetBlue and Powell's Books and that great brunch place in Milwaukee. The super hero cape stapled to my chair. The caution sign at the top of my monitor--a formal, typed "Stop. Think."--and the hand-written Post-It below the monitor reading, "DAMN, I'm good." The jester-outfitted llama photo reminding me that you never know what day at the office might be your last. The photo of Benedict Cumberbatch, so upset that he forgot my birthday.

I'm on the road a good deal for my job, and this is what I return to. From fancy hotels and suave restaurants, I come back to what might be a gray-beige chunk of earth peppered with papers. But when I come back to my desk, I come home. I feel the flutter of my cape as I turn to two-fifteen to consult the to-do list. The glimpse of the top of the monitor suggests that I reread that too-sassy sentence, maybe delete it. (And the Post-It below says, really, it never needed to be said.)

* Yes, beloved Lego Corporation, I know they are Lego bricks. I know "Lego" shall ever and always be adjectival. But while my vocabulary has advanced in many ways since age five, this is one of those words I cling to like a threadbare safety blanket. You can pry the term "Legos" from my cold, dead vernacular fingers. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Essay a Day #9: Talking to Matt About Movies

If you overheard a phone conversation with my brother and I (or participated in it, like my dear sister-in-law), you might wonder about our relationship. We don't trade myriad details about work or plans or church. We don't delve into our feelings, or compare memories of our dad. These things come up, of course, glancingly, but really, overall, we talk about movies.

Movies we've seen lately--tonight we trade "The Escapist" for "Gone Girl"--and movies that we could, and frequently do, recite ad nauseam. Well-known schticks and accents, running jokes, cross-references. It's a friendly contest of sorts: who can keep it going, making each further reference obscurer but able to be followed; who can make the other break up in laughter; who can segue from Harrison Ford to "Ella Enchanted" to Mandy Patinkin and back again.

When we're around each other in real life, we act like normal people (mostly)--sure, movies comes into it, but all the usual conversations, too. But when we're on the phone, it's nearly impossible to shift away from film for more than a couple minutes. I feel and hear it, alternately, as we try otherwise. A few basic points are made, agreement or commiseration is heard, and then a Sean Connercy impersonation breaks in and we're at it again.

But I was thinking, as I hung up tonight: I don't see it as a problem to overcome. For me, casing the conversation like this is a throwback, an homage to when it was all we had. Back when we were at each other's throats living together, or sitting on the phone with nothing to say after he moved out, movies were what we had in common. The number of childhood afternoons co-opted by Lego reenactments of "Willow" and "The Ewok Movie" would reach into the hundreds. The dozens of phone calls involving the latest James Bond flick, or a re-found classic. This was how we grew up, how we learned how to talk with each other as a child and a teenager, a teenager and an adult, a single and a married. We have rarely lived in the same space, life-wise, and movies have always served to bridge the gap, dating from when Matt could agree that I'd moved up in the world by trading in my love for Prince Philip for Madmartigan.

For most of my adult life, my father and I had nothing to talk about. I would prepare for phone calls, filing away conversation topics we could safely sit on for a few minutes at a time. A call would rarely last more than 25 minutes. There just wasn't anything left to say, I guess. I don't have that problem with Matt. Our conversation bounces between real and recorded life, but there are not holes of silence, no skating around patches of ice too thin to risk.

We will talk about anything. Just don't be surprised when the real life stuff is interrupted--pleasantly, perfectly, comfortably--with Hugh Grant being bumbly, Sean Bean dying, or Sam Neill talking about talking dinosaurs.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Essay a Day #8: Saying the Same Thing

Well, hey there, Essay a Day community. You thought I'd left you, didn't you. But no--I am here. Neglectful, but not GONE...

Four of us sit around my living room this morning, talking over coffee mugs and still-steaming pumpkin bread. Funny stories about weddings--and one funeral. Frustrations over children and schools. Tissue-less, I provide a roll of toilet paper for some tears.

The last came as one woman voiced a hurt that is still too fresh, years gone in memory, for me to hear without sharing still. (And glimpses of it are still too frequently felt to forget.) How it is possible to be in a crowd and be alone, how you can know people and be unknown, a veteran and asked if you are new? How are those walls so thickly there, and not. How we think we're crazy for feeling them. How not talking about them only adds another layer of glassy brick.

It took me three years, I say. A familiar opening--I've used it before. Three years in this place--in this city, at this church--before I felt immersed in community, a real part of a larger thing. Like I could pick up the phone and meet someone for coffee without a reason. Like I could sit on your couch even after the food was eaten and planned discussion had.

Why is it so hard to establish real, deep community? Blame was quickly assigned to technology, to the speed of life, but this struggle runs farther below the surface than that, and we all know it. Even as we sit, I can picture a similar scene run back through history: the crooked color photos on the wall are replaced with paintings, our sweatpants with layers of smooth, starched linen. Women talking, feeling out where the boundaries are, where the defenses rest. Still more years, and the walls are bare logs, the clothing simple and stained. More, and the walls fade to just dark unknown, and the coffee table becomes a well-kept fire spiraling smoke up into the stars. I don't pretend that this same conversation, peppered with first-world problems, has remained the same for millennia--but I think the underpinnings could be easily recognized. Who are you? Are we this close? Is it okay to say----? And slowly, agreements, body language, laughter, tears--this strange language from outside our purposeful selves graces to the one across the room: Yes.

Claims that the world held on us slowly draws each woman, one by one, from her chair. She puts her mug in the sink, she slips her purse over her arm, she closes the door behind her, each motion an act of preparing, of replacing the armor that this world requires. By the time they are halfway down the street and I am putting the kitchen chairs back at the table, we have already slipped into the rhythm of normal, of guarded, of closed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Essay a Day #7: Song's Over

Thanks to Alex for his Essay-a-Day post today, which served as a launch pad for this... (Go read his, too. Fair is fair.)

Pulling my mother-made quilt over me the other night, the bedroom window letting in the nipping-but-still-tolerable October air, what made me think of that day? There are no potential romances in my life these days, no dances, and only the standard level of middle-school politics, so what brain filter fingers over every other possibility in three decades of memory and finds this one? Why is it held so pristinely, as though I might get a better price for it one day, it being in such mint condition?

I hardly knew him--knew him as little as you can know someone in eighth grade when there are thirty kids in the class. And he wasn't one of us long-timers--I hadn't fingerpainted with him or shared a copy of Where the Red Fern Grows. He had scarcely been on my radar. I cannot, in fact, find one other memory of him but this.

What is it about shame that sears one memory into you, burning up others?

I don't remember the color of the balloons or the song that was playing, I don't remember my dress or his--likely not suit, not at an eighth grade graduation dance. Whatever he was wearing, I cannot picture. I remember only laughing. Sitting with Meghan, a part-time friend at best, waiting while Alison spun the floor with yet another guy. This was the usual--the times when Meghan and I were at our closest, I suppose. We were laughing over something, so much that I didn't notice him until he was there, impossibly taller than seated me.

And he asked me to dance.

I glanced at Meghan, and put my hand to my chest as I turned. (I hate that this is true. I wanted to leave it out but I can't. I hate that in this second my Disney-indoctrinated head pressed this gesture--Aurora's, I think--into my hand. I hate that this is what he saw as he began laughing: a pretend princess. This is what I hate, out of everything.)

And he laughed. "Damn," he says, already shooting a half-glance to the four or five guys I hadn't noticed, a distance away but not out of earshot. "Song's over." And he has the grace to hold in most of the laugh until his back is turned. He is walking back to them, and as I turn back to Meghan (hand dropped, hand loathed, hand in danger of being removed from body) I see the beginnings of back-slaps and arm-punches.

I don't remember her words, but I remember loving Meghan for that night. I don't remember if we stayed or left. I remember Alison coming back to the table, telling her, holding her back from marching across the room to the boys. And abruptly the film reel cuts out.

I don't know why I have this perfectly-kept memory, when a thousand others would be better. (Not nicer--I have lots of sad, painful, awful memories, but they serve a purpose. What does this one do but to bring me back to a 15-year-old girl who wanted to be anyone else but what she was?

There's one other flash of memory connected to this: maybe two months later, I am at Cape Cod. I have bought postcards for friends, and for the first time have included Meghan among them. I don't remember what else I write, save, "Thanks for being a friend when Tim was a jackass."

I don't know why I hold on to it. I never saw Tim again after the next day's graduation, and Meghan and I fell out of touch after high school. If I could let it go, I would. But maybe it's important to remember these things. Maybe we have to remember there are jackasses in the world--but friends at the table, too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Essay a Day #6: Brainstorming Under a Lunar Eclipse

I am trying to catch words for this post--an opening hook or a central idea, a turn of phrase that curls and presses into my tongue and throat like a friendly, neighborhood, beneficial tapeworm. But each flicker I see--fish moving below the surface, the sun glinting off their mercuried backs--is too quick to catch. I seem to have it, but at the last instant it slides away and back and down.

I have read other people's words tonight, hoping to find some to snare and steal. I have wandered down other people's stories or tripped over their grammar, and neither has produced that glint, the certainty that looks straight through the blank whiteness of an empty page, already seeing the words that will be fruitful and multiply.

And that, at the end of the day, is what I want: words that pour and froth and flow, words that create more words almost unaided. The soundtrack of a writer on a roll: the flackering sound of keys falling hard upon themselves or the manic scrape of pen and paper over the slide of the palm. The satisfaction of needing a second page--feeling the curl and roll under your fingers or seeing the new screen flash out below like a well-lit lunar field, empty and perfect and in need of footprints.

I wonder which I value more--the words themselves (the stories and epiphanies and secrets) or the feeling I have putting them down. The sigh at finding the right closing line. The way my tongue sneaks out of the corner of my mouth as I desperately flit through my mental files to choose "implore" over "ask." My smirk when I choose to make up a word rather than choose a perfectly good real one.

And the finality--clicking "Publish," or pressing the notebook closed. The knowledge that this is work I have done. And the knowing that the same work--same and different--will still be waiting, waiting again, tomorrow.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Essay a Day #5: Baptism

Long before the official one, at the back of the platform in front of the small crowd of Cornerstone Baptist, I had a childhood baptism. It held no spirituality for me at the time, but I feel like Jesus enjoyed it it as much, and likely more, than the scheduled and pristine and prepared-for ceremony. What better example do I have, after all, of childlike faith than that of a six-year-old plunging into icy waves, eyes screwed shut even as she thrashes (equal parts joy and terror) away from one set of arms, sure despite her senses that another one waits for her?

(Geez. Seriously, I could unpack that all day.)

It's the only "first" I remember my father being around for. I'm sure he was there for first steps and words, but afterwards would he perhaps feel the reality of his absence most keenly in those missed moments? I can still hear his voice--cannot see his face because I doubt I turned to look at him--imploring me to read to him on one of my visits, but what had been a showboating skill even weeks before had faded to a certain commonplaceness, and with the efficiency of a child I assured him I didn't need to.

But on this day, after months of splashing-but-clinging to adults, to docks, to floaties, this I remember. In his eagerness, perhaps, to witness at least one last first, he shamelessly bribed me with a Gifford's brownie sundae. With such a prize, the dozen feet of frothy waves between my brother and him seemed still noble and fearsome but worth the risk. We took a few more steps out, so there could be no element of my boosting up from the sand, and then: the sharp cold, even in summer, turning my skin to steel; the sound of distant gulls and unintelligible urging words and gurgling earfuls of water; briny, chalky sea finding ways through my mouth and nose; the simultaneous feeling of surging forward and barely maintaining float. And then another set of arms. Cheers. Laughter. Triumph.

Of course I don't really remember most of this. I remember the bribe, and a blurred Polaroid-memory of the two men and me and the sea. I don't remember the sundae so much as a dim, not-good feeling having to do with my mother--what an older me would identify as guilt, that I had done this great thing without her, most important in my life.

I can easily imagine the rest of those sensory vestiges and more: how the sweet ice cream would fight with the salt still on my lips and tongue, or sitting in the back seat feeling the wind twist my wet hair into a stringy sculpture. I can feel all these things because, after everything else--after being left and wounded and only receiving words of pretended normalcy--this is where I have settled. Such a strange thing, life is: I moved here because he had left it for yet another state, but the longer I stay the more I find connections back to him. For eight years to the day I have carved a home here on the very surf where my smaller self fought for breath and control and found her father's arms.

And that was not a first but a last.

I find myself wondering if he held that memory carefully, polishing it with his palms like a stone, keeping the dull blur of time at bay. I hold this same stone, and while a younger me would have skipped it into waves or laid it at his own carved stone, I press warmth into it until I can hear the surf and the laughter.

These are a different kind of firsts, of triumphs--to take the shards that might have cut us and wear them smooth with our hands.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Essay a Day #4: Gretchen, Magic, Soup

I'm not a day late--it's really more like 12 hours. If I can get in another post this afternoon, we're all caught up. (Let's not investigate the size of that "if.")

The type-perfect words on the page are so few that, upon opening the book you remember again that you shouldn't even bother opening the book.

Gretchen's Potato Soup

4 potatoes, peeled & chunked
1 onion

Just cover the potatoes with water. Add salt and pepper. Mash slightly once cooked. Add milk, cream, or half & half. Add dumplings and bring to boil.
(Dumplings: 2 eggs, 5 T. flour. Mix well, then drizzle slowly into simmering soup.)

Reading it, a stranger would page past. It's too simple, nearly unappetizing. There's no glossy picture to snag the attention. And there are those home-kitchen-recipe mysteries that make my heart rate rise: where do the onions go? Why isn't the half & half listed in the ingredients? What, exactly, is "chunked"?

In my cookbook, though, it's one of the most worn pages, watermarked with oil and spattered like a just-begun Jackson Pollack. But a stranger would page on, because they wouldn't smell the steel pot, full, resting on the back burner, kept warm until we arrived. The wouldn't feel the steam piling off the earthenware bowl onto your face like a hot towel. They wouldn't see the thick, creamy soup clinging to the spoon, too thick to drip. And the taste--I don't have metaphors for that. It was home, and history, and simplicity, and much. As a child, I hated soup, but I would scrape clean bowl after bowl of Gretchen's.

I am not a stranger. I know intimately the soup and its maker. She would make me lemon milk and honey (how did she keep it from curdling?) when I was sick, and gasp with delight when she saw me, and tell me stories and slice an impossibly indulgent wedge of torte onto a gleaming orange plate (I can still smell it, cold and sweet and perfect). As a teenager, I would hover next to her at the stove, taking meticulous notes: the lengths of time, the size of the "chunked," the method for dumplings. But returning home, replicating with precision, my soup was nowhere close to hers. Edible--good, even--but not Gretchen's.

Because hers was more than potatoes. Her heritage was one of barely getting by, of making a meal from old potatoes and water, and she had long-since internalized that stone-soup magic of making such starkness into something generous. I, a child who knew only a pale want, had never known real hunger, could not recognize the spells and potions of a wartime German immigrant raising other people's children, cooking other people's meals.

I still can't make her soup. I follow the recipe religiously, or I add browned onions and rosemary and bacon, and it tastes good, and friends savor and sigh, but it is not hers. I serve cake generously--the orange plate now lives in my cabinet, and that is its primary purpose: to give, to extend, to share. But no written recipes can tell you how to mash the potatoes just so they cream into the soup, or how to lace the layers of torte with just enough brandy to make the flavor linger in the sinuses. How to make someone feel loved and contented before they've finished the first bite.

So why keep the recipe? Why turn the page to the back and white outline when I know the real secret doesn't live there? Maybe to remind myself that this is how things are passed down--food, stories, identity--with some words, yes, but also white space. Good magic. Love.

Essay a Day #3: In Rooms with Women

(posted on EaD 10/3 -- Blogger ate the posting here!)

In about nine hours, I will walk into a house slightly bubbling over with cooing aunts and white tulle. The women will laugh--no, titter--and play games our grandmothers played and squeal and clap gloved hands. Foods will be in miniature, as will the serving pieces. Every other woman there will have been long-married, and they will give the bride half-baked advice laced with unsubtle comments about the general uselessness of men. 

Of course it won't be that bad. I know it won't be that bad. I'm sure no one will be wearing gloves. The tittering will be kept to a dull roar. I'll probably even like the games. But this is what my brain does when a girly thing is in my immediate life path. I know it's silly, absurd even, but it happens nonetheless--for every cell of brain that says, "Relax, it's going to be fine," there are two saying, "but you'd rather stay home and watch Braveheart." . . .

[So this was, originally, a real essay--a more-than-two-paragraphs essay. But Blogger has elected to dissolve it mysteriously (dang logocidal Cloud), sooooo I guess we'll just leave it as it. Maybe I'll flesh it out again when I'm less ticked...]

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Essay a Day #2: She & Me

It's strange--funny--fitting--how undifferent I am from her. As though I am a bystander, I can see her, albeit in low definition: the overlarge feet propped on the table, the hips hidden in the box-like chair, Seventeen magazine splayed over angled (but, more than that, rounded) knees. Head down. Defenses up.

Hearing this song now--"She would change everything for happy ever after"--two near-simultaneous sighs hit me: the first is that of a woman who will never be 14 again, who would not turn the pages back to 1998 for a thousand good things; the second is that of the 14-year-old who is still here, the girl who is less changed than she thought she'd be nearly two decades later years later.

In a weird flash of imagination (powered by a few too many Doctor Who episodes) the 14-year-old, ensconced in her comfort zone, evaluates the newly arrived thirtysomething uncomfortably scanning books on the shelf the way adults do when in the lair of adolescents--distracted but not. She has not thinned out the way everyone said she would--everyone said she would, and that is just not fair--but her hair is better and while traces of acne remain, the face is more smooth than scarred. She has learned to dress better, though hints of her never-caught high school trends remain: jeans that brush the ground, shirts that fall to her hips, statement earrings. She wears glasses now. Strange. When did that happen? The teenager squints, swipes at her nose. But there is no denying this is the same woman; her height helps to distinguish, but see too how she pulls her bottom lip up when she smiles to hide the unpretty teeth--dead giveaway. She'd recognize that anywhere.

The thirtysomething, her attention caught, angles her eye over the book to refresh her memory. Is it any wonder this girl would earn an English degree, when her high school hangouts were the theater and here, the second floor of the library, perched between the six and seven hundreds of Dewey. The pictures in the magazine--impossibly long-legged girls with gloss-shined lips and platform-inverted feet--taunt her in secret years before she would learn they taunted everyone, even the glossy, the leggy. She is here because there are other people here--not friends, but a passing glance would make it seem so. She shows a studied relaxation, but it is too stilted to be real. It will buckle at the shift of any number of variables. It's nearly painful to watch.

 Love yourself, the thirtysomething wills across the room, the book settling back on the shelf. Stop being certain that you are an object of amusement. Stop playing a role and free yourself. Walk across campus without a crowd. Be funny for the sake of making yourself laugh. Take ownership of those words that scrape and sting--fat, awkward, poor--or take their sting from them. Find those small powers you have (of words, of compassion) and exercise them.

Because this woman you so ache to become is already sitting there with that magazine. She's wrapped up in those adolescent layers as much as anyone, but she is already peeling back and discarding the pieces that don't work anymore. She will become the girl with the notebook full of quotes, the girl who forgives her father, the girl who falls in love and loses but doesn't die, the artsy girl with confidence built from grace. She will blush less and laugh more and stand instead of leaning. She will not be perfect--and she will in some ways bear no resemblance to this dream-adult you're aiming for, but she'll find those dreams were ones you grow out of the way you used to love Prince Philip but now it's Rider Strong or nothing.

If I could only crouch down, rest my chin on the arm of the chair to whisper to her. But that's part of the deal, isn't it? We wait for our own selves. There's no rushing, no shortcuts. She will find these things to be true, but no sooner, no easier than I did the first time. How do I still remember that first walk alone (insignificant and huge, remembered so perfectly), when the only sound in the world was my hurrying feet in the grass and I was sure every window was filled with eyes. Arriving into class, I regulated my breathing to find that no one had noticed. I remember knowing that he was leaving and in love with someone else--and months later seeing him and feeling only a tinny reverb of old emotion. A teacher looking me in the eyes and saying, "You do this well. Do it more. Never stop." Standing in front of a graduation crowd speaking, laughing, hearing their laughter echo back. Nearly indiscernible steps toward a new (but not as new as I'd imagined) version of me.

The teenager looks up again from the magazine to find that the thirtysomething is gone--sort of. She thought she was talking to her, but it must have been voices from downstairs. A song flits out on the edge of her head, almost heard: "She's just the way she is, but no one's told her that's okay." Weird. She shrugs, and turns the page.

- the song is Jon McLaughlin's "Beautiful Disaster." It's fantastic, and it's written, I'm quite sure, about every teenage girl ever. Listen to it here.
- seriously, Rider Strong. It's not too late to make this work. Call me.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Essay a Day, #1: Stealing Other People's Stories

Drafter's Note: Hey, friends! I'm embarking on a semi-awesome, semi-terrifying challenge with some new writing cohorts over at Essay a Day: writing one essay (in whatever format/style that takes) each day for the month of October. Let's do this thing... DAY ONE:

All my Oscars have been for screenwriting. 

I’m reasonably sure this is true. 

Maybe way back, back before I traded in my plans of acting for a stage manager’s headset and binder, maybe I accepted a few for acting. But the overwhelming majority of my wins have been for writing stories that were filled in with famous faces and spread thickly across screens in dark rooms full of strangers.

[Sidebar: While it can be awkward, I’ve found the bathroom is the best place for accepting. The steamy mirror creates a glow similar to that of stage lights; your wet hair is easily swept into something classic or cutting edge; the towel can be cinched to sveltify the waist and press the girls into some sort of cleavage. I’ve done a lot of research, and this is where I’m coming down in the discussion: bathrooms are best.]

I’ve only occasionally wavered--while stepping over the thank-yous and nods of honor to the vanquished peers--on which award I held. I’ve typically accepted for Original Screenplay--it seemed purer, more mine. Adapted would do only if it was from my own book. To take someone else’s work, dicing and forcing it into lines of dialogue and scenery, seemed cheating.* But it’s in the tripping over details that you remember it’s just shower steam. The orchestra would have long-since played you off the stage (screenwriters get no extra time, we all know). Your former microphone slices through your perfectly--ehh, uniquely, anyway--swept hair, and it falls into its everydayness. As do your breasts. And waist.

The details had always seemed pretty secure, freeing me up to focus on hair and cleavage. But I went to see a movie last night--just an ordinary movie, but I’d just finished the source-material novel a few weeks ago, and I was so sure I was going to growl at the adaptation (as good English majors always do) but instead... It was adapted. A better word might be perfected. It was like somebody read this mediocre novel and said, “For a rough draft, not bad.” And went in and removed that stupid characterization and fixed the bit with the sister-in-law. And (with the inarguable help of a casting director to be reckoned with) utterly nailed it. 

And for the first time, far from my fogged mirror and hairbrush, I actually, really get the good-artists-steal thing. Because every rewrite is its own creation and every revision is a first breath. We all wear hand-me-down words, phrases found at the second-hand store or buried in Mom’s closet. Nothing is pure, no words are mine. And that’s more than okay--it’s an opportunity: to remake, refashion, redraft, re--- everything.

This silly, unimportant, forgettable movie has me rethinking more than just who I’m wearing. Already I’m fingering through the mental files of stories I wished were better, characters I wanted different endings for. Stealing? Certainly. Bettering? That remains to be seen. I hope so. 

Because--oh man. This is such a shock. I--who are we kidding, I was hoping for this, but I can’t believe I’m really here. Okay, sorry! Focus: so many people to thank...

- - - - -

* Yes, I know some fantastic writing falls into this award category, simmer down. And because I’m a sucker for some facts, a few personal favorite, award-winning (real awards, shower steam nowhere in sight) "stealers" over the years: Philip G. Epstein, Julius J. Epstein, & Howard Koch -- Casablanca (1943). Joseph Mankiewicz -- All About Eve (1950). William Godman -- All the Presidents Men (1978). Eric Roth -- Forrest Gump (1994). Aaron Sorkin -- The Social Network (2010)