Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nota Bene: the Value of Voicemail and the Ghosts Around You

The last post I made here, Qarafa, was started a good number of days ago. There was (as there always is) head scratching and pondering about what to write. Then, I didn't finish it because the free verse I included below the narrative was pretty lousy. It's still lousy, but I had a few "what the hell/nothing ventured/who gives a damn" moments on Thursday and punched the publish button.

During the time that post was perking in Draft Purgatory ("Come for the writing angst, stay for the editing demons!"), there were two postsone on Gizmodo and another on io9that resonated with me and what was on my mind in Qarafa. The Gizmodo post, You're Wrong About Voicemail by Leslie Horn, dealt with the issue of a sudden family death, and the fact that voicemail—seemingly nearly universally loathed by folks younger than 30 or 35, if many online discussions are to be believed—might offer you peace, solace, and a connection to someone gone while you are grieving their loss. That hit me in the gut, as I've been there, hearing my mom's voicemails, or those from my late sister and brother. Made me cry. Yep, Gizmodo made me cry. There were some wonderful comments on that piece. (Just bypass the people who only tapped their keyboards to say "I still hate voicemail." They missed the point, big time.)

The other piece, We Are All Living Among the Dead by io9's Annalee Newitz, covered territory very familiar to me: that, as we continue on in this life, the dead in our lives
—our family, our friends, others who impact our existence—multiply. How we see them, how we honor them, how we cope with their loss and their intangible presence... it's something I think about a lot.

One of the key takeaways from all these good words (and my own mediocre ones!) is this: document the living daylights out of your family's stories. Take pictures, take video, take audio. I did questionnaires for my siblings years ago, although only a couple ever filled them out. Take pictures with your family and friends. I think I'll take a picture with the Sasquatch this weekend, whether he wants that or not. Most of our visual memories are 27, 28, 29 year old college photos. Just get your stories in whatever way rings your chimes. It's worth it. Look, none of us knows how long we have on this planet. So, be a story collector. Your future will thank you.

Anyway (she says, carefully stepping down from that overused soapbox)...

I just wanted to bring your attention to these two lovely, well-written, thoughtful, and touching pieces. I really get them. I hope you do, too. I like a little psychic synchronicity. Maybe it's the autumn making us all more thoughtful. In his hilarious piece on the seasonal bane of pumpkin spice, John Oliver describes autumn as "the best season" and then notes that fall foliage is a reminder of our own mortality. Watching the leaves furiously roll and turn from my window here, I totally get it.

Enjoy good reading, especially from people who have (or are) better editors than I. Peace out, autumn people.

Vintage tractors on the lawn of a little house in Riverside, Iowa,
future birthplace of James T. Kirk. I took this shot on the Iowa road trip
my sisters and I took with our brother's ashes in 2006.

Friday, October 17, 2014


The nature of being a teller of (mostly) creative nonfiction tales is that you tend to live in the past. You're behind the curve. Fifteen years, fifteen decades, fifteen minutes—it's all time gone by. You build your work from experiences you or others have already had. There are thoughts and glimmers of the future held in your words, of course, but no actual future action because that leads to speculation and, then (the horror!) fiction. There’s fiction in the past, of course. Every writer has atoms and molecules of fiction in their nonfiction past. You can’t remember every moment of a life's adventure. Instead, you hold onto the essence and the truthful highs and lows as much as you can. Then you patch them together with a measure of fuzzy grace and humor or pathos and grim intent. But all along, you live in the past. You create in the past.

A few nights ago, I was up in the wee hours with an ice pack on my shoulder, numbing that torn joint into submission in the hopes of a few more minutes of sleep. I sat on the sofa, a pained zombie yet again, eyes glazed over, half watching some documentary on Cairo. I saw familiar sights—places I’d visited with a lost friend (lost when we drifted without conflict and discovered we were on different paths in Washington and incompatible ones in life in general):

--The Egyptian Museum where we studied drawers full of animal mummies and gaped at riches from ancient tombs... 

--The twisting streets of the Khan el-Khalili where we drank glasses of cold, pressed strawberries with crushed mint... 

--The Coptic church where the caretakers wept and showed us photos of their priest who had been dispatched to Texas to oversee a flock far from home.

-- And, in all its crumbling, macabre glory, the City of the Dead—Qarafa, or el-Arafa—the massive cemetery sprawling across a swath of southeastern Cairo. 

People live there among the dead—housing is scarce and expensive in the Egyptian capital. Some there claim they took up residence to be closer to their ancestors, but that is a polite fiction to cover the humbling state of poverty. Couples marry there. Children are born there. The old and infirm die there.

My friend and I walked through the cemetery. We spoke to people who live among the dead. They are very much alive. Poor, certainly, with limited options, and very aware of their silent neighbors under the dust, under their homes. Considering Egypt’s historically complex relationship with death and the dead, it didn't feel as strange as I initially expected it to. I have my own complex relationship with the past. In my case, it's mostly contained to what's in my skull or what I type out here late at night. 

I will admit to being haunted by it a lot of the time. I don’t see faces in the darkness, and nothing goes bump in the night. But I feel the past weighing on me. Sometimes it’s a heavy choke chain, reminding me of all the hopes that were held for me (especially those I failed to achieve). The kingdom of "What If?" is a lonely place just a few steps from a locked ward, and it's populated with people we've lost and all the unresolved conflict and unfinished plans left in their wake. 

Sometimes the past just visits in the form of words—neither good nor bad nor studded with guilt. Just words. Some words need to spill out, or you will burst. Some stories—even those that don’t seem to matter to more than a handful of humans with whom you share DNA—need to be shared, and not forgotten.

-- The Christmas rituals with twisted candy cane cookies made in a hot kitchen while “March of the Toy Soldiers” played on a tiny black and white TV on the cookbook shelf.

--The Thanksgiving where the turkey hit the floor when the table leaf was not anchored in place.

--The uncles never known, lost to war, whose stories are still spinning out, decades after their bodies perished.

--The last great road trip you took with your family and all the side trips that so wonderfully and unexpectedly glutted the itinerary. Devil’s Tower! Wall Drug! (Sadly, Wall Drug’s “bowling cat” had died, but we did get our free ice water.)

It really doesn’t matter how mundane or silly or serious. You tell the stories for yourself and you hope you impact at least one other person. You can’t lose the narrative. There is room enough in the world for all your words. All the things you fear might perish with you, if you don’t write them down, if you don’t say them out loud before you, too, leave this fragile planet. 

I cringe when people point out that I retell some of the same stories quite a bit. For me, it’s a way to make sure I don’t forget. Every telling is a rehearsal. Every version gets a little bit better, I hope—or at least a little bit more polished. And it’s a way to make sure I myself don’t vanish into the woodwork. I tell a story, and I am still here. I tell a story, and the people who have left the scene are still here. I can hear their voices, and, in turn, you can hear their history. Right now, I can hear my mother saying, “You’re like your father. You never met a story you couldn’t repeat to death.” True. I will own that.

If I tell you a story you've already heard, just tell me so. I’ll find another one for you. Or, if you prefer, I will remain silent in your pleasant company. I’ll use that time to flip through the yellowing reference cards in my head, seeking something untold to reveal. We all have those cards up there, with our own personal drawer in the great cosmic card catalog. 

In our own way, we are all historians and archaeologists of a deeply personal variety. We just have our own ways of disseminating the results of our fieldwork. My work tends to be ill-cleaned, rough pieces of the past, brought up from the dig without much editing or thoughts of polished presentation. For others, the work is artful or charming. Some are visual, some tangible, some soft on your ear, some hard on your heart. Some breathless with joy, some crushing with grief. 

It’s all around you.

-- A baby quilt with panels embroidered by the hands of three or four generations.

-- Kodak carousels of slides of family vacations and a parade of terrifying hair styles and pastel polyester.

-- Canisters of brittle films of Boy Scout jamborees and holidays in a parade of overstuffed homes.

-- Photo albums that show one grandmother as an adventurous teen with a mischievous grin and another as a vain girl with your same unruly hair, a pocket-emptying love of fashion, and a hint of her future battle with mental illness in her sad smile.

-- Decades of letters inked in Palmer Method script—generations of narrative and love and the commonplace stuff that makes up a life—all flowing through your hands and heart in a cursive river.

It’s everywhere.

All the stories I hold, all the stories you hold…

of your loved ones now gone… 
of the histories you cherish and hate…

of all the commonplace events that make up a life or a family or even a whole civilization.
We all live in our own city of the dead. A rich place in your heart and head where the living mingle with the lost. Carry your stories, be sure to hand them off them to others when you want or need to, and don’t be afraid to retell your stories 

and retell your stories 

and retell your stories

so they are never lost. 

So those lives are never lost.

Truthfully, what I offer materially in this life is next to nothing. No children to carry forward any legacy. No grieving lover who will weep when I, too, am dust. But here in the ether, I hope my immateriality has some value. There are fewer than ten people who read this blog on any regular basis. I don’t count the people who stumble here looking in vain for something strange they sought on a search engine. They are anomalies. But for the 8 or 9 people who come with purpose (or out of gluttony for punishment), the writing and the reading is a shared experience. I give up something personal, and,  in turn, I hope one of you among the handful who come with purpose finds a story you will enjoy or retell somewhere, sometime. And then, that story’s soul can live a little in your own city of the dead.

Some of you already know I suck at poetry. (See I Suck at Poetry: the Autumn is A-Comin' Edition and I Suck at Poetry: the Lydia Deetz Edition.) I've sucked at poetry since I was a child, but that doesn't stop me from trying. Autumn makes me wistful, as does pain and change. And now, I have all three in abundance, and the poetry muse is poking me with a sharp stick. Like my prose out here, my poetry is offered without guarantee or charge, so there is no refund for lousy free verse. That's right—it's free verse. Free verse. Get it? Yeah, I'm a comedian, too.

This is my city of the dead
There is no gate, no lock to turn
Just come inside and sit with me
And brush the dust out of my eyes
I'll tell you what I know

Unfold my hands
And you can see the stories that I hold
Of people who have turned to ash
And others buried deep below

Bones grown smooth 
Will slip through fingers
Cinders blow like drifting sand
So I cling tightly to my words

But if you want
And if you ask
I'll pour them all
Into your hands

These are my travelers, now stilled 
My family and acquaintances
Voices, faces fade and fail
Beneath their stones with timeworn marks

But trace the grooves with fingertips
And call their names out loud 
They'll waken and they'll come to us
And we will greet them as they rise

Grey forms that fill with color now
Alive as you and I

For in this moment
As you read
And as I write the words
They live another hour here

Embraced by curiosity
Made solid by our dreams

See empty halls
And fallow farms
Flood full color
Lush with life

And something grows
You see? 
So vivid

Ripe and full

So come, love
And grab some fruit
Before the story ends

Before the travelers fall to sleep
And everything is dust again

Now everything
Is dust again

This is my city of the dead
And what I have is yours to take
In words, I'm offering you my life
My relics and my memories

All given without question

There are no guarantees of course
(So present no reservations)

Unseen to strangers on the street
My only riches serve, in truth
To fill an empty dowry tomb
Chipped chalices and deep flawed gems

Still, treasure all the same

No invitation needed, friend
Come dip your hand into that well
Embrace a soul that waits for you
Collect your well-worn prize.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

I continue to suck at poetry

When autumn comes, the temperature dips and my brain fires at a slower, more thoughtful pace. And then, God forgive me, I write poetry.

I used to keep a jar (or was it a tin? my memory is fuzzy now) in my apartment closet in Moscow where I would drop scraps of paper with phone numbers never called (some of them for fairly famous artists and writers, so more's the pity), and poems that I would scribble on the Metro or a trolleybus. In Moscow, we're all the poor man's Zhivago.

When I moved from Moscow, the jar (or tin or animal cracker box, for all I can recall) vanished, and with it a small measure of creativity. It was probably recycled with my moving boxes, turned to dust by the City of Moline or Montgomery County, if it made it all the way to Bethesda. It matters not. We string words together every day. Some good, some lame, some forgotten in minutes or hours. The goal is to string together a better line or two or three the next time.

In Moscow, most of the year felt like fall to me. Fall, winter, thaw, fall, winter, thaw... So, I wrote more poems there. Here, it's more of a once-a-year event. Literally once. I get the bug, I write some lines of free verse, and I move on. I have no expectation that anyone will enjoy what I write. Sometimes, I don't like what I produce. That said, it's a liberating form of writing, and if you're working in free verse, nothing matters. What's in your head moves to your hand and appears on a screen.

I can't dance. I have no rhythm. With my nerve damage, I have no balance (which is very rough on someone who was never very well-coordinated and always accident-prone and bruised). Flop, fall, flop, fall, hopefully not break something, lather, rinse, repeat.

I think what I produce in the way of poetry reflects my own lack of equilibrium, so I embrace my lack of skills. And in posting it, I'm showing equal parts hubris, humility, pretentiousness, fearlessness, and stupidity. Lots of stupidity. If one of those aspects outweighs the other in your mind, dear 2.5 readers, I bow to your judgment.

Wrote something this week, and I'll probably post it later today. For now, I hear the clarion call of laundry. It's become somewhat urgent to do laundry. Clean undies and fresh warm socks trump poetry any day of the week.


Saturday, October 04, 2014

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Sloths of Summer (and Spring... and Autumn)

So, I'm a sucker for a good wall calendar. I'm also horribly cheap, which means I usually buy my calendars sometime in February. What a bargain!

It used to be I would go to Borders, a mile up the road, right after Christmas and snag my fill of numbered days. Then Borders died. (sigh) I'm still not over the death of Borders. I'm not wild about the Fast and Furious Barnes & Noble up the road, despite them having a Starbucks that's open until 11 pm. The parking lot is a gathering spot for local street racers, hence the unofficial name (at least in my mind), so there's a sea of spoilered Honda Civics in the lot all night, and a crowd that seems particularly disinterested in purchasing printed paper. It's not my scene. If Vin Diesel shows up with zen thoughts and a kitten for us all to pet, I'll revise my opinion.

Now, I buy my calendars online, and I've learned that year-round calendar purveyors do not have the mad post-holiday sales of a brick-and-mortar bookstore. I'm a fan of RetailMeNot, and Ms. Cheapskate can usually find a coupon code or two that makes a paltry new year discount more palatable. Those suckers don't show up until February or so, though, so I stagger through January without a page to scribble on, and then get something pinned to the wall. Yes, I am a Luddite when it comes to counting my weeks and months. I'm fine with that.

There's something about turning a page, seeing a beautiful image or thoughtful words heralding a clean slate of days, and, maybe a number outlined in Sharpie, reminding me of a loved one's birthday or a vacation day, orimportantlypay day. Those days are treasured for their ability to keep me housed and fed and my pencil case filled and the Internet and coffee perking. I have them outlined in green.

This year's calendar is a festival of Art Nouveau lushness in the form of twelve Alphonse Mucha beauties. As a kid, I used to love the Job rolling paper poster one of my sisters had in her room. I had no clue of the weed paraphernalia significance of the rolling paper ad back then. I was too young, and I was just captivated by the gorgeous woman on the slick paper, smoke curling around her fingers and head, a look of some sort of out of body experience across her face. The Art Nouveau revival of the 1970s certainly helped form my taste in art, but it would take me decades to realize it.

I'll never have a real Mucha of my own (unless I win the lottery—enough F-U money can turn anyone into a gen-u-ine art collector), so I'm willing to settle for fridge magnets and wall calendars. And, in February, I got my bevy of twelve beauties to pin to my wall at work. They are gorgeous and even have a little glitter going on, which actually amuses me, a definitively non-glitter girl.

In the spring of this year, things started to get very unsettled in my life. Had to move, things started looking very dodgy and uncertain in the work realm... I realized things were neither hunky nor dory. One morning I arrived at work to find one of the kids' magazines produced by my employer on my desk. The cover story: sloths! I love sloths. There's something mellow and sweet and weird about these critters, and they look like they're blissed out most of the time. I don't know what clicked in my head right then. Maybe it was just this overwhelming sense of coming sea change (in which I
anticipated being Leonardo DiCaprio and not Kate Winslet on that damn door), maybe it was another project postponed or cancelled, maybe it was just a need to blow off steam... I don't recall now. I just know I had a compulsion to cut out all the sloth photos in the magazine, pull out the Scotch tape, and and affix those happy fuzzballs to my Mucha calendar.  I giggled like an idiot as I did it. Someone walked past my door and gave me this "she's lost it" look. I didn't care. God knows we all need relief valves in this life, and if mine could be gently turned with tape and scissors, that's a good thing. Trust me, I commute to work by car in DC. At least I wasn't yelling at anyone.

Miss April was the first Mucha girl to get slothinized. Since then, I've gingerly removed the same four sloths from one month and moved them to the next. They've been torn and repaired and even had limbs removed to suit my Frankensteinish requirements. They make me smile. It's so stupid, but at least once a month, I have five minutes at my desk to do something that doesn't cause stress or require me to ponder the future beyond 30 or so glittery days.

I've tried to snap a cell phone photo of each month since April, but somehow I managed to miss a couple of months, alas. So, for your amusement, I offer a selection of the Mucha Sloth Nouveau Tableaux 2014.


Miss April had the added bonus of a little letterpress angel and devil.

June only sported three sloths up top. The tree hanger dude is off screen at the bottom.

July got a little chummy with that guy hanging off her shoulder. "We cool. We cool."

August saw "chummy" become a little more intimate. He's makin' moves.

October took a total "harvest cornucopia of sloth" turn. All hail autumn and her crop of sloth!

Next comes November, and the sloths will turn on my birthday. I may have to add a hand turkey into the mix. We shall see. I'll get some construction paper and make them all Santa hats for December.

What happens come the new year? Still to be determined. Not sure where my calendar will hang come 2015. Nor do I know if the sloths (a new, less battered batch) will still be cavorting with the lovelies of Mucha's hand or another artist altogether. I'm accepting suggestions. Glitter optional.