Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Leaving Home

The year before we married, Tim and I lived in the attic apartment of an old Victorian home.  On the first floor of that house, a woman I never met practiced her piano every night before dinner.  The landlord wore sunglasses at all times, even at night, and wrote letters that began, I'm writing to you today primarily about the bats.  On the second floor lived a tall thin redhead with a tall thin bike, and next to her lived a jittery man who seemed to be building a go-cart or bomb, though he denied any relationship to buzz saws when questioned. 

Writing about this man's mysterious noises and strange intensity reminds of The Burbs, that kinda bad 80s film with Tom Hanks and Corey Feldman, of all people, who is a topic himself we don't have time for now.  But do you guys have that sort of neighbor?  Like the ones down the street from us now at our new place.  There is a house with about 18 different kids living there, tight-jeaned, sallow boys like members of a Conor Oberst band.  Every weekend, different boys are out weeding dandelions, setting up sprinklers, and working on cars in front of the house, as if they have to pull their weight to share in the drug supply they partake in the rest of the week.

It's all weird and I love it. These are the things I think about when I swing on our front porch at the bungalow where we live now.  Looking all yuppy tidy with my black dog and cold tea and fat book, I'm really sitting there making up lurid stories for the real, boring strangers I live nearby.

Bad 80s movies aside, in the months after moving into our attic apartment four years ago, I suffered a series of, what to call them?  Identity-crises?  Panic attacks?  Simple tantrums?  We had painted the office a putty-brown color.  My rickety desk was tucked under a cramped, slanting eave.  My family and community lived thousands of miles away.  The landlord creeped me out, and I worked in a dying bakery with peach-colored walls and refrigerated display cases that hummed numbly all day long. 

It also rained a lot the first fall we lived in Colorado, a miracle to my now-parched skin.  I was drowning in the putty-colored office, squashing around the neighborhood in wet sneakers, muttering angrily as I dashed from work through the rain, and trying to keep my wits about me for my devoted fiance and good natured dog. 

I managed all right, except the one night I ran away from home.  I loaded myself and a stack of cds into my dusty Jeep and motored east into the night.  I drove over the highway and into some fields outside of town, pulling over not thirty minutes from my home.  It was the desperation and determination that mattered.  I climbed onto a pile of dog blankets in the back seat and listened to the rain outside, my feet on the window, a wild compilation of Indian chants playing on the radio.  I  collapsed in a state of despair and surrender.  And, because of that, I found a lightness, a bemused curiosity for what the hell was coming next in my life.

Sometimes, it is essential to just Go.  The Where doesn't quite matter.  It is the power of going somewhere by yourself, sometimes with a little anger running in your veins, that can save a life.

No matter what budget I am living on, I always make room for a cup of coffee out by myself.  As a friend of mine recently joked, some days spending $5 can be the difference between a nervous breakdown and a damn good time. 

Growing up, I rode my bike through the dark streets after dinner, cool air running over my body like a dark, mysterious love.  In college, I jogged in the neighborhoods behind campus at night, nearly invisible, my feet small drums on the pavement.

Now I take myself out for cake or little treats of time with a bad or good book in a sinky coffee shop chair, imagining the lives of people around me.  I haven't felt the need to run away from home for years.  Sometimes I tire of conversation and grab the dog for a quiet walk in the cooling night.  But I've learned how to balance many of my more difficult emotions simply by giving them space. 

I once read something in which Miranda July said she finds it important several times a day to just give up. I think about this all the time.  Giving up gets a bad rap in our culture, but sometimes it is necessary to simply surrender to the darkness engulfing you, to admit you don't know what the hell you are doing, and to ask, on an exhausted, open, energetic level, for a little help.

Can you see why I like the Beats so much?  According to the super reputable Blues for Peace website, the original street usage of the word "beat" meant exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on you own, streetwise.  I remember studying this definition in high school, too, so there's more street cred for you skeptics out there.

Anyway, I am sending great big gulps of air your way, wherever you are in your journey: in darkness or in light.  For the truth is, they are two sides of the same coin, brother and sister to one another, parent and child.  We need them both - shadow and sparkle, cold night and hearth.  May you explore them both in spite of fear, and find the bridges between.

With love,

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


In Spite of Everything, the Stars
by Edward Hirsch

Like a stunned piano, like a bucket
of fresh milk flung into the air
or a dozen fists of confetti
thrown hard at a bride
stepping down from the altar,
the stars surprise the sky.
Think of dazed stones
floating overhead, or an ocean
of starfish hung up to dry. Yes,
like a conductor's expectant arm
about to lift toward the chorus,
or a juggler's plates defying gravity,
or a hundred fastballs fired at once
and freezing in midair, the stars
startle the sky over the city.

And that's why drunks leaning up
against abandoned buildings, women
hurrying home on deserted side streets,
policemen turning blind corners, and
even thieves stepping from alleys
all stare up at once. Why else do
sleepwalkers move toward the windows,
or old men drag flimsy lawn chairs
onto fire escapes, or hardened criminals
press sad foreheads to steel bars?
Because the night is alive with lamps!
That's why in dark houses all over the city
dreams stir in the pillows, a million
plumes of breath rise into the sky.

"In Spite of Everything, the Stars" by Edward Hirsch, from Wild Gratitude. © Knopf, 1992.

Today's poem comes from Edward Hirsch (obvs) courtesy of The Writer's Almanac where it was featured yesterday.  Generally, I try to be more creative than blatantly copying Garrison Keillor, but sometimes a poem jumps off the page (screen) and grabs me by the collar (homemade necklace).  Such was the case with In Spite of Everything.  Please forgive.

I had a bunch of ideas to write about last week, but I was like, I'll just wait a little.  Advice For Everyone Alive: Don't do that.  Ideas need to be grabbed and ridden like dying comets.  Slap away your boss when she requests something.  Drop that carton of milk in the worst supermarket you've ever been inside of and run, always run, for the page. 

In a delightful turn of events, The Sun magazine's June Issue features an interview between John Elder and someone I once knew, a writer named Leath Tonino. 

I met Leath the summer Tim and I volunteered on a birding project for the US Forest Service (pictures and thoughts on that experience here), and became smitten with Leath's youthful exuberance.  He reminded me of someone I once had been - ambitious, open-minded, hellbent on exploration - before years of twenty-something bewilderment and confusion churned me up and spit me out.

Leath was a returning employee of the field season, fresh from undergraduate college.  He bunked that summer with a friend of his, a quiet man with a charming, if suspicious, twinkle in his eye.  Like a pack of neighborhood kids, the two of them did everything together.  It was beautiful.  I once climbed the waterfall behind camp to discover them rigging up a galvanized tank in a pool of water, a kind of jerry-rigged tub for cooling off.

Tim had just finished his graduate degree.  We were engaged and moving from North Carolina to Colorado.  I was on high alert finishing a novel for my thesis project, writing wherever I could in the car, in the cabin, in the rec room before the crew awoke. 

Our summer spent volunteering was a chance to cut loose, explore the west, and give back to the earth.  We spent weekends driving to various national landmarks in the desert, eating out of milk-crates in the backseat, making meals out of pistachios, raisins, and oatmeal, soaking in the bliss of an an open window.

We saw incredible things, met nice folks, and look back on that time with overwhelming gratitude. 

We also had a spectacular fight in a KOA, a fact that just explains itself.  To this day, neither of us can remember what in the world we were so worked up about.  All we recall with certainty were the bunnies hopping from thorn bush to thorn bush, like some fuzzy, psychotic alternate universe we had stumbled into. 

In that time, I had some of the most electrifying conversations of my life with Leath in the government-issued turquoise Jeeps that we drove over the Kaibab Plateau while looking for bird nests.  He was in love with John McPhee.  He wanted to be a writer.  He had a girlfriend I imagined as smart as or smarter than him, as plump and adorable as an Etsy owl.

In addition to a deeply satisfying tan, those days bestowed upon me one of Leath's invocations, the advice or quote from somewhere I didn't write down: You become the object of your intent

It's little more than an iteration of more cloying New Age sentiments - the Power of Attraction, etc etc. - but the simple intellectual decisiveness of it appealed to me, and I latched on.  I wanted to become a writer.  I wanted to become a stable human being.  I wanted to know something some day, about kindness, compassion, and living a good life. 

I also wanted to again start acting like Leath seemed to act - focused, angry, enthusiastic.  In other words, fully alive. 

That was four summers ago.  My delight at seeing his name in The Sun,
all growsed up, is the delight of an old neighbor, someone who as a girl once prayed out her window at night, rooting for the pure souls, the ones who carried their minds on fire, like comets. 

Today I have gratitude that a writer's work pays off.  That intentions come true.  Desert-cowgirl straw-hats off to you, Leath!  And hats off to all you working writers and creators out there, setting your sights high and working your tails off to get there.