To the Moon and Timbuktu

To the Moon and Timbuktu

Nina Sovich shares the first chapter of her new book, To The Moon And Timbuktu, with Equals. 

The cab driver assures me his sister Salima runs a lovely hotel.

“It’s a very good hotel, yes, very good hotel. No noise, no bother. Very clean. They have many, many Western tourists. Many women. Salima is a good woman.”

He leaves me in front of a squat two-story building made of poured concrete that sits on the edge of the desert next to the army airport. The second-floor balcony is hanging off its anchor bolts, and the windows are murky with sand and pink goo that looks a lot like Pepto-Bismol. The only light in the hotel emanates from a first-floor pool hall that smells of fish heads and burned felt. Cigarettes, empty milk cartons, and black plastic bags skip down the street in the midnight breeze, accumulating in a huge pothole in front of the hotel. Clean, I suppose, is a relative term.

© by Nina Sovich. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. All Rights Reserved. 

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Second Life

me without you

At the dentist the other day, I took note of one of the two receptionists. She looked about Mom's age. Like Mom, she was bubbly and laughed often, sometimes out of nervousness, sometimes because humor was simply her most accessible emotion. She had a well-established rapport with her colleagues, referencing inside jokes and moving between Professional Service Mode and playful banter with ease. I watched her take instruction from the other, much younger receptionist; she seemed a bit sheepish about not fully grasping some aspect of their scheduling software, poking fun at her age and separateness from today's all-digital world. She was liked by her coworkers, quickly recognized by most of the patients that came through the door. This could have been my mom if her brain were still functioning, if she'd left my stepdad long ago, if she'd fulfilled her destiny of following me wherever I ventured, living in an ornately furnished mother-in-law cottage/loft space/attic/basement and being full-time daycare to my son. That's what we always envisioned for ourselves, before I had work or a husband or a kid. Part of the fantasy was that she'd hold some low-stakes part-time job where it didn't much matter what she did as long as she was interacting with people, probably her greatest talent and skill. She almost got to do this — the part-time job part, anyway — in 2004, the year I got engaged. Mom hadn't worked or had her own car in 17 years. Independence was the casualty of her dysfunctional marriage. She'd fought this reality off and on over the years, never really resigning herself to it. My stepdad wanted her home — even outings to the mall and evenings at friends' houses (well, her one friend's house) were highly negotiated propositions. Sometimes my stepdad would wait until the last minute, while she was finishing her makeup or blow drying her hair, to tell her she couldn't go. It was his car she'd have to borrow for these infrequent jaunts, after all. He did not share enough of his income to even afford her cab fare.

But my engagement lit a fire under Mom's ass. She was going to contribute financially to her daughter's wedding, goddammit. She wouldn't hear my protests. For her, being so financially hobbled as to be unable to help pay for her daughter's wedding was a concession too big, definitive proof that her situation really was as bad as it looked. Because my stepfather was the sole breadwinner, she told him that either he allow her to work and earn some money of her own or he'd have to pony up for the wedding, a ballsy move for a wife who had become pathologically averse to rocking the boat. She pulled it off — my stepfather relented. Mom and I spent the next year planning and pricing, brainstorming inexpensive tricks and workarounds to craft a low budget but classy affair. She loved it. She found part-time work at a Restoration Hardware, racking up a respectable sales record. Most of her coworkers were young 20-somethings, and the upper-class clientele preferred to buy their expensive pieces of furniture from a mature adult who seemed to know a thing or two about furniture. She was enjoying a degree of independence she hadn't had in years, and I thought, with the naïveté and magnanimity of a new bride, that this could be her turning point. Maybe my wedding would give Mom her groove back, remind her that she could rely on herself, could survive and even thrive without a possessive, psychologically abusive spouse weighing her down.

It wasn't until after the wedding that Mom's bouts of forgetfulness became worrisome. The burst of confidence she felt at the start of her second working life waned under the pressure to understand the company's computer-based checkout system. She couldn't keep up with her younger, computer-savvy colleagues, who had cameras on their phones and did something called "texting." We had one computer at home, and my stepfather made clear that no one but he could use it. He even kept a protective plastic cover on it. Mom was a ball of nerves around the work computer. My husband, Adam, and I created tutorials for her, tried convincing her that she wouldn't break it, that it wasn't made of glass. But our reassurances didn't sink in. Work became a dreaded exercise in which all of her insecurities — all of the bullshit my stepdad had shoveled at her for years — were validated. Her once-friendly coworkers who had enjoyed chatting with her and hearing her maternal advice became irritated by her ineptitude, her seeming unwillingness to master one of her basic job requirements. So began Mom's slow slide backward. Her second life kicked her back into her first one, where she felt more dependent than ever on my stepdad, the man who'd stooped so low as to be with her.

I like to imagine my Second Life Mom flashing her wide, warm smile from behind the reception desk at the dentist's office, offering advice on grades of leather at the furniture boutique, or perhaps making small talk in the checkout line at the grocery store. I sometimes linger in front of the For Rent signs outside one-bedroom apartments in our neighborhood, envisioning her inside the blueprint layouts, getting crafty with furniture arrangement to determine the best flow for each room. I imagine her spoiling Henry, driving Adam and I nuts by not reinforcing our parenting rules, and Henry adoring her for it. It wouldn't be the life she imagined for herself or hoped for when she took her second marriage vows. Leaving my stepdad wouldn't have cured the deep-seated insecurities that drove her into a toxic relationship. And being a single middle-aged woman would surely present its own set of fears, including financial hardship and loneliness. But I'd have taken it, if only to witness her experiencing her own strength, the spark of her own possibility.

"What Are You Writing, Alexis M. Smith?"

what are you writing alexis

Sometimes, on the rarest of rare occasions, a story just happens to you. You don’t expect it; you assume it will contain words similar to stories past. And then it shocks you, but a pleasant jolt akin to a dear, long lost friend tapping you on the shoulder. This is the only way to describe Alexis M. Smith’s delicate tale, Glaciers. I read it in one day, which was a struggle because I wanted it to last longer, but I intend to peruse my own copy from here on out. Ms. Smith is currently working on another book, and she lives in Portland, Oregon with her son.-Samantha Bohnert

It is strange to be a writer in the summertime. I don’t know if this is true for other writers (I have anecdotal evidence that I’m not alone), but I struggle to engage with my writing in the summer months. I might as well be trying to ice skate as I write a novel from June to September. I was born in the Pacific Northwest, so I assume that the heat is what’s doing me in, but it could just as easily be the world outside—berries to pick, mountains to hike, rivers to swim—calling me out of my head, making writing laborious.

Faced with a page of words I can’t seem to make sense of, all I really want to do is go to the beach. Sitting on the sand and listening to the waves should be a good way to reflect on the work at hand, to let my mind comb through snags in the story. But I usually find myself overwhelmed with my own smallness, my own inability to express anything that might come close to the world I envision. What I usually do, after vain attempts at conscious, constructive thought, is hunt for agates. I have the eye, it turns out. I see agates when others don’t, when others have walked right past them, scanning the ground, turning over larger rocks. I find them when others proclaim that there are none to be found, that they just don’t exist like they used to, since they built the jetty over there, or since this or that beach became popular with tourists.

I found a blue agate half the size of my palm one day in Oceanside, Oregon, while rock hounds all around me found nothing, poking their walking sticks glumly at the pebbles. I didn’t hold it up to the light for everyone to see. I didn’t want to feel their envy. I didn’t want to feel like the lucky one. I dropped it into my pocket so that I could examine it alone, later. I wanted to look at it carefully, to appraise its weight and colors, the way it filtered the late-day light. I wanted to see it fully before I shared it with anyone. What if it was not precious at all? Or what if it was the most beautiful specimen I’d ever find? What if it was both at the same time? The novel I’m writing has been in my head for almost five years now. It came to me in a dream, soon after my son was born, when the hormones were still strong and my dreams were wild and intricate and bright. I woke up and asked my son’s dad to take him for a while so I could go into another room and write it all down. I knew it was a book. I knew that I would write it. And I knew that it would be important to me, writing this book. But I had another novel to finish in the mean time, and a newborn, and a day job.

Years passed; my son grew; my first novel was greeted with (miraculous!) acclaim and goodwill. And all the while, in a pocket of my mind, this other book grew and grew. I scribbled notes and sources and inspiration in a notebook. Scenes came to me suddenly when I was doing the dishes or folding laundry. Character sketches fleshed out, the plot took on dimension, and symbolism crept in. I felt a charge of energy whenever I talked about it with friends, whenever I thought of what it could be.

Agates form in volcanic rock, where voids in the rock leave room for silica-rich water to seep. Over time, under great heat and pressure, the silica and other minerals crystalize in the spaces. Here in Oregon, we find the remnants of these agates on our beaches, where the Pacific washes them from our basalt coastal cliffs, breaking them apart, scouring them over other rocks with each wave and each tide, polishing them.

Agate hunting was a family past time; I learned young not to ignore what was underfoot at the beach. Over long hours of contemplating the waterline as a child, I developed a fanciful sense that each agate found me as much as I found it. We were destined to meet, there on that shore, at that ebb-tide, as if only I could appreciate the expanse of time it had taken this small wonder to find the light. No matter how many agates I find, that moment of discovery always takes my breath away.

Similarly, when I get the idea for a story, there’s also the uncanny feeling that I have nothing to do with its genesis. The story comes from somewhere outside me, and I am only the space in which it will expand, take on density and weight, color and luminosity; that it was meant for me, and me for it, at the bidding of something greater than both of us. Some days, this comes as a relief: I can give up my self-doubt to a higher power. Other days, the responsibility seems overwhelming: how will I ever be equal to this task?

A few days ago, summer on its last, burnished legs, I got in the car and headed out of town on a whim. I couldn’t face the computer all day in the city heat, construction hammering across the street from my apartment. I sat on the beach, thinking of the story that had been crystalizing in my mind, hoping the ocean would scour away whatever stood between me and the glorious, layered, dynamic thing I wanted it to be. The water retreated and I waited to see what would be there, on the pebbly stretch of beach. With the sun at that low angle, the small, wet gems gleam more like jellyfish than rock, but I didn’t catch the telltale glint. Finally, when I was ready to give up, I saw one. No one around, I plucked it from the sand and held it up to the light, admiring the glow.

This is the thing I come back to now: the luck of it all. Here I am, sun-drunk, on a deadline, with pages and pages ahead of me, wondering, What if it’s the most beautiful story I’ll ever write? What if, after all this fretting, it’s not precious at all? And what if I’m lucky either way?

Every Which Way

Every Which Way

By Samantha Shorey

For someone who basically has a camera glue to her face, there is a surprising lack of pictures framed in my apartment.  No laughing candids of dinner parties, no backlit flowers on a windowsill—just one single, wide-angle shot of a bend in the road in Big Sur.  It was taken off the side of Pacific Coast Highway and somewhere, just outside the frame, is my Honda Civic stuffed to the gills with comforters and flowy Free People tops that I had just packed-up from my beachside attic bedroom. The photo is a basic landscape, really—mostly made up of turquoise water and yellow scrub brush. I framed it to remind me that life is surprising and that sometimes, when we are very lucky, the future is better than we know to hope for. I look at it and I know that on the other end of that road is an old craftsman house and a new best friend, a local dive bar and a mountain home-town.  It was all waiting, right on the other side; I just had to get there.

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Chilly Winter Books for Hot Summer Days

what are you reading randon

Randon Billings Noble is a creative nonfiction writer living in Washington, DC.  A graduate of NYU’s MFA program and a former teacher of writing at American University, her work has been published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review;  The Millions; Brain, Child and elsewhere. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, and was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to be a resident at the Millay Colony for the Arts. You can follow her on Twitter at @randonnoble and read more of her work at ww.randonbillingsnoble.com

During the dog days of summer it’s easy to get impatient with the weather and yearn for brisk October days and snowy December nights.  But reading these three wintery novels may help you keep your cool – and appreciate the warmth of August while it lasts.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Mabel and Jack have started over, moved to Alaska and tried to leave their past (their stillborn child, their family farmland) behind them.  But their longing for a child will not leave.  In a fit of fun they build a child from snow … who may come to life.  Mabel knows a version of this story – a fairy tale written in Russian, a language she can’t read – but even with her knowledge, can she keep the child she has grown to love?  Or is a springtime melting the child’s only fate?  Ivey’s novel is a retelling – of sorts – of the classic fairy tale but with twists and turns all its own.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Mostly set during one Midwestern winter, Blankets, a graphic novel, is the extended coming of age story of a boy raised in a rural, highly religious household.  Craig suffers from a harrowing betrayal of his brother as a child and terrible ordeals at school and at church, where his drawing is misunderstood at best and seen as a sin at worst.  Enter Raina: a beautiful girl he meets at church camp, a girl with her own burdened past.  Their relationship grows and he goes to Wisconsin to visit her for two weeks over winter break.  Those two weeks will leave him changed forever …

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

Naturalist Erasmus Wells boards the Narwhal in search of botanical and animal specimens more than adventure.  But when the expedition’s commander – and Erasmus’s sister’s fiancé – forces them to winter over in a sea of Arctic ice, each crew member is tested in ways he could never predict.  Are they in search of Franklin’s lost crew?  Are they trying to find an open polar sea?  Or does Zeke have other ideas about what he means to accomplish so far from home?  And if they ever return, how will Erasmus reconcile what he has learned during his terrible ordeal with the happiness of those closest to him at home?

Reading about Alaskan winters, Midwestern blizzards and an ice-locked ship stranded in the Arctic will have you grateful for 95-degree days and 80-degree nights as well as eager to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and another good book come winter.

The Youest You

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm pretty good at a number of things, but I don't have a special skill, talent, or hobby that I can really call my own. When it comes to my education and career path, I've managed to achieve many of the traditional markers of success. However, I'm fairly confident that's because I've chosen to stick within the boundaries of what comes easily to me, essentially avoiding failure by not challenging myself. It's also possible I'm adept at pretending that I'm better than I really am or know more than I really do.

Maybe I'm truly lazy and don't work hard enough to consider myself accomplished or skilled. Maybe I'm particularly attuned to the fact that there will always be people better than me. Maybe I'm just not cut out to excel at anything.

I'm not even sure why it matters to me. I don't want to walk around with a medal or read about myself in the paper. Am I so insecure that I'm seeking outside validation to make me feel good about myself —like my inner ten year old who wants to get picked first for the team at recess? I think having some sort of special talent would feel like a worry stone I could keep in my pocket and touch when I needed a little pick me up. Maybe what I really need is a worry stone.

Sincerely,

Just ok

 

Dear Just Ok,

It sounds like what you are searching for is greater meaning in your life—some kind of driving narrative about what you are meant to be doing and how you should shape your life.

Some call that a calling.

Recently, I read a book to my daughter (every day, several times a day, for two weeks) called Ella Takes The Stage.  Are you familiar with it?  In this children's story, Ella the Elegant Elephant is asked to participate in her school talent show.  She gets really nervous when she looks up "talent" in the dictionary, and it says, "a special natural ability."

She tries out several (singing, juggling, etc.) but eventually she just ends up supporting everyone else—mending a ripped pair of tights on a dancer, baking cupcakes for all the performers, saving the day by getting the monkey to jump into her hat for the grand finale.  Everyone claps for Ella, who does not win any medals but is appreciated as being the "wind beneath the wings" of all the people who did acts.

The message is: maybe you don't have special talent, or it could be that your special talent is supporting those who are actually talented!  To which I was like, "Oh great, teach my daughter to be a shadow artist who caretakes those with 'real talent'.  Awesome."  Don't get me wrong.  I want to champion all kinds of expression, even those who are more "behind the scenes."  But a total support person is not a fulfilling or sustainable role. So, don't buy into any of that "maybe you're just a worker bee” bullshit.

Here's how I would have ended Ella the Elegant Elephant.  Ella loves to sing, but is shamed out of it by people who think she's not good enough.  In my version, Ella would find a song she feels highlights her unique voice, even though it may sound really odd, maybe writing it herself to make sure it works.  Then she'd perform it at the Talent Show, and some people would get it, and some would cover their ears.  Ella wouldn't win the top medal in the show, but she would start down a path as an experimental musician that was highly fulfilling even as she enjoyed supporting her fellow artists by baking cupcakes and painting posters.

Shit, now I want a cupcake.  Anyway, enough elephants, more you.  It is excellent that you are thinking about this—don't shame yourself out of it.  It means that you are taking yourself, and your life, seriously.  You are craving meaning and purpose, not just empty praise.  You want to find something you're incredibly good at, not necessarily to be successful, but because it feels amazing to excel at something.

It sounds like you have gone down the "usual" pathways for finding that special something you are wonderful at doing, and have come up empty.  So here's where we flip it on its head: perhaps you're not going to find that thing in education/work right now.  Also, your idea of talent needs a re-vamp.  Maybe what you are amazing at is being you.  You need to find the medium to express your "you-ness", and follow that, even if you are not perfect/successful/praised at it.  I promise you, this will scratch the itch that you have to be "great".  You will get so much out of the process that your whole goal of life will shift.

The inimitable Martha Graham once said, “There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”  So, I'm going to ask you, Just Ok, to go off the beaten path if you have to, to find that way to express your uniqueness.  Don't let it be lost in the effort to obtain society's hallmarks of success (degrees you spend a lifetime paying for, houses that depreciate in value, climbing a job ladder you realize you want to jump off).  That stuff doesn't last, and you're right, it's not worth caring about.  But finding out what you are truly passionate about, and what you can do well and feel good doing, is worth pretty much all of your effort.

So here’s what I want you to do.  Make a stream-of-consciousness list of things you’d like to try, even if it turns out you’re not the pillar of perfection at them.  Then choose one to do this week.  Laugh at how terrible you are at first, but see if you get the hang of it.  What did you love to do as a child, before the idea of “success” entered your consciousness?  Were you shamed out of it and into a smaller support role, like Ella the EE, or have you just never thought about what the adult equivalent of being a master at Light Bright is (I think it’s coding, or furniture design)?

The roof is about to be blown off of this “just okay” life you’ve built for yourself.  It is going to be surprising and strange, and you may never gain the kind of external achievement that our culture so cherishes.  But you will know where your strength lies, and that is something that no one can take away from you, and which you’ll need for the inevitable ups and downs of life.

It’s time for you to be your own worry stone.

Love,

Sibyl

P.S. I don't want to influence you too much on this search, but might I point out that your quandary letter was exceptionally well-written?  From one writer to another... whatever you do next, you should write about it.

Assateague

Assateague Island

I awoke suddenly, to find my vision held by a girl with a choppy, asymmetrical haircut, one I'd given her the previous week before our band's first show.  Her eyes were wild as she told me, "We're driving to see the ponies. Get up!"

My roommate grumbled at me as I stumbled around in the dark, throwing my favorite thrift store sweater and used CDs into my denim shoulder bag, “Shut UP!  I have a test in the morning.”  She rolled violently over to face the wall.

My friends were always breaking in to do things like this---grabbing me at 11:30pm to drive to Philly to get soft pretzels from the factory the second they came off the oven rack, whole gaggles of boys (which was against the rules at our university) in the middle of the night, picking me up in my pajamas and throwing me down the wet hill, as I screamed and laughed and rolled.  She requested a single room for our second year.

I shuffled into my shoes and ran to catch up with my friends in the parking lot, who were already hopping into their huge old cars, sturdy Cadillacs and Buicks that once belonged to their grandmothers, all with names like "Marge" or "The Porkchop Express", based on our favorite movie vehicles of the 80's.

I angled to be in a car with Sam, because I knew he would be quiet most of the way and that is what I craved: hours of this dark night to be spent staring out at towns going by that I'd never seen before, drawing designs on the window whenever they got foggy enough.  Alas, Chatty Cindy climbed in beside me, sodden down with snacks and jokes.  She proceeded to build a nest in the hatchback of Sam's car, which we took turns wiggling back into, to take little snoozes on the three hour ride.

I kept trying to get Patti Smith's Horses in the CD player, but mostly we listened to Modest Mouse and Cat Power, which got no complaints from me.

Sam looked over at me and smiled.  "Have you ever camped on the beach before?"

"I haven't done much camping at all.  I was always more of a take-the-train-to-NYC kind of girl."

"Well, we'll hook you up.  It's going to be so magical."

Sam was one of those neo-hippies who was always saying things like this, when he talked at all.  His hair was floppy and his clothes were simple, fitting his soccer body in an effortlessly attractive way, without attention to what was hip to wear.  He was also never seen without his guitar, on which he played sparse songs leaning more toward experimental music than hippie rock.  An enigma for sure, he was my first friend at college.  I was considering ditching the high school boyfriend I'd hung on to to make out with Sam, but sometimes I wondered if he was quiet because he really didn't have that much going on up there.

Cindy was babbling away in the backseat, creating little songs about her round tummy, and making Erin, the botched-banged girl who had woken me up, laugh beside her.  Erin had a great laugh, one of those honking ones that made everyone in the cafeteria stare.  It was also a bit rare, as she was a severe gal, more prone to tell you to get the fuck out of her face then laugh at your jokes.  But Cindy was so absurd and relentless that eventually everyone joined in.

When we finally got to the beach, it was still dark out, and I helped carry equipment that made no sense to me, eventually dropping it with a clamor on the sand.  "Where's the campsite?"  My voice sounded louder than it had in the cramped car.

Len, whose afro was listing to the side from the door he'd slept against in the Suburban on the way there, replied, "There isn't one.  We're technically not allowed to camp here.  But it's such a huge beach that they probably won't catch us."

Probably.  We were a sober bunch, so with a lack of alcohol or drugs to give us thrills, we were often taking these kinds of risks, to get the feeling that we weren't wasting our youth.  I was plagued with a constant fear that I wasn't living big enough, that I was going to look back with regret, wishing I'd jumped from higher peaks.

With that fear riding on my back like a dark-cloaked demon, I stripped down to my underwear and ran, legs akimbo, into the sea.  Allison, always eager to be in some version of nudity, splashed in after me, Sam at her heels.

I floated out on my back, astounded at the amount of stars that clotted the sky.  Sam started pointing out constellations, a skill I'd never quite mastered.

"Wait, where's Orion's Belt?"

"Right there, don't you see it?"  He pointed one spindly figure up, outlining the curve of the famous symbol.

"Ohhhh, yeah. . ."  I hoped no one could tell I was lying.

Len and Erin were building a fire when we came dripping out, and we warmed up and ate the snacks Cindy had brought, and some we'd scored at Wawa on our way out of Pennsylvania into Maryland.

"So, what do we do now?"  I asked.

"We wait. . . for sunrise.  And hopefully, for the ponies." Sam answered.

"What, are they just going to come running through here or something?"  I looked around me, picturing a herd of animals tearing down our precarious tents with their hooves.  The sky was changing, from pitch black to midnight blue.

"Maybe.  They're wild."  I snuggled down closer to him in our sleeping bag.  Even if I wasn't going to cheat on my chicken-haired boyfriend with Sam, I was at least going to feel his body alongside mine, like when I was on family vacation with my boy cousin, and we shared a bunk, my body alive with his otherness and what could not be.

Eventually Cindy finally ran out of things to say, or perhaps she went on a walk to look for the ponies, a huge woven blanket draped around her shoulders, her steps small and plunking.  Either way, she quieted and I dozed off.

I woke up to find the light around me hazy orange, the sun a fiery beach ball floating up over the sea.  I sat up and pulled my knees to my chin, careful not to disturb Sam, looking impossibly young in slumber beside me.

Erin was awake, standing just at the edge of the campsite.  The light made a halo around her skinny rockstar body, ringing it and burning it into my memory.  She turned to me and pressed her finger to her lips.  "Look.  The ponies!"  she stage-whispered.

I scrambled out of the bag and hurried over to her, my glee unconfined.  On a dune, amid some grass, were several beasts, horses so unlike the groomed ones I'd seen on farms and in Central Park, they could have been a different species.  They didn't look my way, lost in their own world of breakfast grazing and spraying each other with sea air as they whinnied.

I looked back at my own pack, all laying on top of one another in a semicircle around the fire.  I went over and nudged Sam with my nose, mouth clamped shut to stave off a whiff of my stale breath.  I pulled him up with my hand and stood him beside Erin, who slung a gangly arm over his shoulders.

Our smiles were like we'd figured out some precious secret.  My hands felt tingly and numb, with the knowledge that for at least this one moment, I was doing it.  I was living flat out all the way up the stars.

Book Trailer Number Two: Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn

process_header

Though she lives across the country from me, I was able meet Katrina Alcorn a few days after agreeing to do the trailer for her memoir, Maxed Out; American Moms on the Brink (Seal Press). When I sent her my mailing address for the deposit she said, “Oh! You live in Brooklyn? I’ll be in Brooklyn tomorrow!”

We met for coffee at a light-filled, white-washed cafe, recommended by my cousin, who always knows all the cool places.

Our conversation was of a piece with the cafe: pleasant, airy, invigorating. I walked home feeling so inspired and hopeful. The mid-morning sun was golden on the low buildings on Smith Street. As I walked home it slowly gave way to raw late-morning brightness shining on the buildings next to the BQE.

I hope you like the trailer. I had fun making it. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Below, a few deleted scenes that I really liked but that didn't fit into the final piece. (Funny how that's so often the case. A painting teacher in college called those little precious bits cherries and said you have to be brutal and paint over them.)

My Mom and My Son, the Style Icons

me without you

When the much beloved and mourned magazine Domino folded, its publisher tried to make up for my unfulfilled subscription by sending me Lucky magazine. I hate this magazine. Besides being a poor Domino replacement, it's basically a SkyMall for beauty products masquerading as a fashion glossy. Of course, there are pretty people in it and products! clothes! and stickers! But beyond its unmitigated advertising blitz, there wasn’t much for me to latch onto, except for one feature: the last page of the magazine was dedicated to the column "My Mom, the Style Icon" (based on a blog, which became a book for Chronicle). The one-page feature included an old photograph of a mom, dressed fabulously ahead of or very much of her time, plus a brief write-up from her admiring daughter.

I also grew up admiring my mom’s sense of style. Whether rock-show casual, girls’-night glitzed, or gussied up in her Sunday best, Mom could put an outfit together with flair. When it came to clothes, Mom operated with an instinct that I did not inherit. I loved clothes as much as she did, but my fashion sensibility was (is) more sweaterista than fashionista. Mom loved big costume jewelry, brooches, even (gasp) shoulder pads, but managed to craft those otherwise gaudy elements into something sophisticated and luxe.

Mom tried to impart her style on me to disastrous effect. I recall the epic fights we would have getting me dressed before school. She always wanted me in skirts and shirts with ruffles or — horror of horrors — to pop my collar. (Clearly, she always envisioned me this way.) I wanted to blend into the scenery, and she wanted me to burst out of it like the Kool-Aid Man. This struggle continued throughout my adolescence. In high school, after lamenting that none of the boys noticed me, she declared, “Sweetie, we just need to sex you up a bit, is all.”

She was basically the fabulous queer eye to my conformist straight guy.

While I never had the gumption to wear my fashion fantasies on my sleeve, it appears Mom’s sense of style has skipped a generation. My four-year-old Henry loves dressing himself. He regularly incorporates pieces of flair and elements of drama into his preschool outfits. Sometimes it’s a turban; often it’s a cape. He tucks muscle shirts into pink and purple tights, requests pigtails (like the girls at school) and buns (like Mulan) atop his head, and morphs his sleeveless shirts into tube tops. At the heart of this sartorial inventiveness is a pair of Hello Kitty rain boots worn so thin that they may disintegrate off his feet before he grows out of them. And lest you pigeonhole him as a rigid aesthete who is all form and no function, these outfits always leave room for a weapon. The tube top doubles as a holster for a foam sword, and the elastic waistband of his hot pink tights provides a secure spot for a plush baseball bat, should a villain present him/herself.

My son: the fashion warrior.

And the best part? The kid pops his own collar. I never taught him this or did it for him. Though he won’t know the stylish and fabulous woman she once was, Henry is definitely taking after his grandmother. (Though Mom always said she would never be called “Grandma”; it made her feel too old, and she was too vain. “What are you going to have my kids call you, then?” I asked long ago. “Can't they just call me Lee?”)

Whether this love of dress up is a phase or some strain of inherited fabulousness, Henry and my mom would have had a blast together. I imagine Henry picking through Lee's stash of costume jewelry and her dutifully rummaging through old clothes and fabrics to help him realize his Little Edie-cum-superhero visions. They'd have made a great (and well-dressed) team.

Cherish is the Word I Use to Describe

Asking For It with Sibyl

Sybil,

You've actually answered a question for me before. I'm back again because your advice was excellent. I feel guilty coming back for round two; I want to give someone else a shot. But here I am because I need ya.

I am in love. Absolutely, without bounds, in a way I didn't know I could be. I know because I am full of goodness and forgiveness and understanding (I guess you'll have to take my word for it). But the man I love? He doesn't cherish me. He doesn't treasure me. He says he loves me. He doesn't act like it. I've carefully and calmly and sweetly explained what I need, what I want. I'm not a princess. I'm not a nag. I'm demanding the kind of treatment I deserve.

My question is, Sybil, does someone cherish you? If they do, how'd you get them to do that? Did you have to ask? Did they just do it naturally? What do I have to do to be cherished? I love myself; I know that comes first. I am loving, and I'm pretty sure that comes second. What am I missing? What am I doing wrong?

Sincerely,

Not a Princess

 

Dear Not a Princess,

Your question has been this little voice in the back of my head, the past week.  As I'm doing the dishes, crossing the street, lighting candles or checking the mail, I hear, "Sibyl, does someone cherish you?"  And then, when I answer internally, "I believe so," a further question arises, "How do you know?"

What satisfies the human heart?

I am beginning to believe that only gratitude does.  And that gratitude is not some little addendum to one’s spirituality, something you make lists about at Thanksgiving or consider when prompted in a yoga class, but the secret to living a sustainable life of joy.

So, am I cherished?  Well, my spouse loves me, in the cracked-yet-beautiful way that humans love one another.  I do not always feel the fierceness of his love in a way that I connect with, no.  Sometimes it is too tentative, and I lose myself in the complicated folds of where desire turns in on itself and into contempt.

I want it to burn.

But some years, it just smolders.  I know it is there, right under the surface, keeping me vaguely warm by its glow.  It doesn’t feel like enough and I am cold.  I shimmy under a blanket of self-love, treating myself like the most precious, fragile object I can find, trying not to starve out my desire until it can come in the form of the perfectly balanced fire I so crave.

Here’s what keeps me going on those nights when my toes feel like they are going to fall off: I do believe my beloved is capable of loving me how I need and want to be loved.  And he is trying, as I am trying, as we are all really fucking trying.

It does not always come natural.  Love, like gratitude, is a life-changing practice that starts within but emanates out into action.  And I am so, so grateful to have someone who is trying, with his whole heart, to love me as I am asking to be loved.  When he falls short, there is grace for that, just as when I do I meet his grace.  We share the values of committing to one another while also letting each other change, and sticking with it even when it isn’t perfect.  And trying.  Sometimes I think it’s all in the trying, in the arching, and that the satisfaction of the actual connection is just a fleeting by-product.

So the main question for you and your partner is, is he built to love you how you need to be loved?  For instance, are you asking for monogamy and commitment from someone who is not oriented towards that kind of relationship?  Are you asking for a quiet, steady kind of love with someone who loves in these huge bursts?  Are you simply asking for kindness, which everyone can learn how to do? Can you be grateful for his form of love, or does it really not even register as love to you?

If what he can offer is not what you need, and if you do not share the same values around love, then you’ve got to let him go and find another heart to attach to.  But if you see a glimmer in there of the love you want, and he has the willingness, then keep trying.  Keep arching.  Keep coming back to love.  Even if it all ends, you won’t regret the striving towards love.  You may even find you are grateful for it.

Love,

Sibyl

A Colombian vignette

eternally nostalgic

For the rest of Roxanne's dispatches from Colombia, you can wander over here to visit her field notes.

I am sitting alone. This has become a recurrent motif of my time here: girl in coffee shop, pen in hand, notebook in front of her, in anticipation of the arrival of the next person she will be interviewing for her field research. I notice my solitude is alarming to many Colombians. It invites whispers or even subtle pointing. Colombians point with their lips, as though they are kissing the air. I sit and wait, in the company of pairs of lips extended quizzically in my direction. At lunch a few weeks ago, my solitude was so perplexing that a whole family decided to join me and inquire about my status here: What brought you to Colombia? Where do you live? Why don't you sound Greek if, as you tell us, you are Greek? You have a boyfriend? Ah, then why are you here alone? I cherish the questions and the solitude alike. Steeped in other people's narratives and quotes, always alone in a coffee shop, it almost becomes an imperative to appreciate the research process and its rituals.

My interview subject arrives and my status in the coffee shop is restored. The collective relief at the apparent end of my solitude is palpable. The interview commences and the irony is not lost on me that we are discussing the darkest corners of a conflict while we are accompanied by carrot cake and surrounded by delicate paintings of women dancers. Perhaps we need the delicacy, fragility, and beauty in those moments. Perhaps, otherwise, they would become wholly indigestible.

Halfway through the interview, a man interrupts. I had noticed him looking at me earlier, pointing with his lips. He introduces himself as a poet and his friend as a philosopher and I think to myself that this is the stuff of Midnight in Paris, written by Woody Allen's Colombian alter ego. He doesn't even apologize for interrupting what I know he knew was too official-looking a conversation for a place that cozy and casual. "My friend over there and I over-estimated how much wine we  could drink. Would you like a glass?" Moments later, before I have had the chance to say yes or no, my interview subject and I continue our conversation about conflict in the company of two glasses of rosé wine.

As the interview wraps up, the poet (or maybe the philosopher?) gestures back towards me. "You know what it means to have a man buy you wine in Colombia?," he asks. I think to myself that it probably means the same thing as in the rest of the world, but I simply smile. "You have to buy the next round!" I decline, as another interview awaits me, but I offer another smile. "You know what I love about you?," he asks me. "You have this giant, world-powering smile one moment, and you look totally serious the next. Smile-business, smile-business. You flip like a switch. It's almost psychotic."

You know what I love about this country? That it never leaves you truly alone. That it inquires, prods, points till it is satisfied. That it jars you and fills your life with contradictions, with dancers and carrot cake and rose and conflict and trauma and contrasting memories. Most of all, I love its interruptions. I love the proverbial poet in a bar who will complement your smile, call you psychotic in the next breath, and in the breath after that, be gone, having returned to his own story.

Embracing Revision

If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, you might want to stop reading this post right now and bury yourself in the book instead. It’s a book I’ve been avoiding for a while, having heard so many good things about it. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is my all-time favorite book about writing, and it’s held my loyalty somehow. I didn’t want any other book to take its place. Fortunately, Bird by Bird is not better, just different, and wonderful too. The book is filled with anecdotes and proverbs I’d love to scrawl on the wall above my desk. Here’s one that took me by surprise. Lamott quotes E. L. Doctorow, who says that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

It’s a wise instruction not only for writing but for life, just as the subtitle of the book promises. But for me, it was a hard pill to swallow. First of all, I hate driving at night for exactly that reason. I am forever worrying about what’s just beyond the headlights. I am satisfied with nothing less than a full panoramic view of the horizon.

And when I read a book, it takes all of my willpower not to peek at the last pages. If an important character is going to die or a plot twist lurks toward the end, I would very much like to know about it up front. You know, before I get all involved and everything.

It is the same with the story of my own life. If only I could see the whole arc of the narrative, I could prepare myself in advance for comedy and tragedy, heartbreak and delight, and all (my subconscious believes) would be well.

In fact, being the curious (i.e. nosy) person I am, I would also like to know what’s going to happen next in everyone else’s life (and I bet you would too). It’s why we refresh our social media feeds countless times a day. It’s why we ask newlyweds, “When are going to have kids?” and first-time parents, “When are you going to have another?” and college freshmen, “What are you going to do with that degree?”

I think this speaks to our collective anxiety about doing things “right” and in the proper order. It’s as though we believe that life unfolds along a balance beam, laid out for us in a clean, straight line. Best to train our eyes on a clear destination; one misstep could be disastrous. But, of course, our lives are not so linear and predictable. And thank goodness for that.

Erin Loechner wrote recently about life (and art) as a cyclical, rather than linear process. She put it this way: “we’re continually refining and transforming and backsliding, hoping that we’ll end up a little closer to B than A. But oh, there are times when we’d rather be A. Where we aim to experience rebirth, rather than death—a starting point instead of a finish line. And I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about life—it’s a series of circles, not lines, isn’t it? A continuous spiral, cycling around and around until we reach a new point of view, a new dot to spiral from.”

If I have learned one thing about the practice of writing, it is that the magic happens in revision. It is in returning to words that have already been laid out—turning them over, taking them apart, and rearranging them—that I discover what I really meant all along. And if I have learned one thing from this book thus far, it is that revision is a thing to embrace in life too.

We cannot tell where we are destined to end up and who we are destined to be. Yet, we can count on returning, again and again, to some of the people and places and ways of being we have already encountered. Each day is not simply a new bead on a tenuous string of life. Rather, each day is a revision of the last, and today is a first draft for tomorrow.

"I Don't Want a Bigoted Friend"

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

A college friend of mine has an attitude problem when it comes to race. We met 12 years ago and lost touch a year into our studies when our programs diverged. At that point she had already made 2 racist comments, one which I pointed out was unfair and biased, and she conceded. But when the second comment occurred, I cut my losses and went on my way.

Five years ago she moved to my city and sought out my friendship again. I was happy to hear from her, because she does have a lot of good qualities and has turned out to be a fairly loyal, if somewhat self-centered friend.

She had done some traveling after college and I was hoping her mind had opened and she'd matured with regard to her unconscious views on race. Not totally. There were a few less-overt comments that I let slide, due to my passive nature and just general cowardice (ugh). I never thought that she would remain my friend for this long, or that she'd figure it out eventually by interacting with more folks from different backgrounds (our city is fairly diverse and she's since entered a multicultural graduate program).

Alas, that's not really how privilege works, as we both know, Sibyl! The recent release of the film Fruitvale Station, and its confluence with the Trayvon Martin verdict have produced some ugly & awkward moments with her—which unfortunately I've heard of second-hand. Her comments were to the effect of, people are just saying nice things about this movie because of the trial, subtext being that ... black people are getting away with "it"??  It makes no sense. It's getting to the point where I have to run interference with other friends because I'm (perhaps selfishly) afraid this reflects badly on me. I don't want a bigoted friend, but at this point she has become so important to me that I can't just cut & run either.

I think I know the right thing to do, which is to gently bring it up and act like I just don't understand why an otherwise nice person seems to hold these views, and to sort of cushion it by saying I think she's much smarter than that. But I'm afraid that instead I'll start shaking with rage and go off about white privilege (I'm white too, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize what's right in front of our eyes). Any tips? Thanks so much!

Losing the Race

 

Dear Losing the Race,

In the past month, people all over the country have had some unfortunate surprises, seeing how folks close to them reacted to the Trayvon Martin murder case, and the film Fruitvale Station, which depicted the murder of Oscar Grant III.  It’s been awkward, depressing, and downright enraging to see that people you thought were allies are actually indifferent, ignorant, and/or even full-out racist.  How is it 2013 and so many white people just don’t “get” the effects of institutional racism?  Well, privilege is a sneaky thing, and no one wants to give up power they don’t want to believe they have in the first place.

The message I heard, over and over, from the black folks in my life was, “White people who are conscious, please handle your people. We are tired of explaining racism to them.  It’s time for you to step up.”  So, although I recognize that my efforts are far from complete, I’ve been using every platform afforded to me to discuss race in America, and I thank you for another opportunity to do so.

What I am finding is that since most people avoid talking about race like the plague, they are clunky with it.  Their opinions are not fully formed, untested by debate and expression.  They are a bit like teenagers in Health class on Sex Ed day - there’s all kinds of jokes where there should be depth, and the level of tension in the room is palpable.

I like that you are willing to examine what having a bigoted friend says about you.  What it says about you is you are a human with human friends, that are complicated and imperfect and not totally aware of themselves.  Everyone has their equivalent of your bigoted friend in their lives.  It’s like the embarrassing uncle who you used to love as a child for all the reasons you now hope he doesn’t show up at the family functions—his loudness and silliness was fun for kids, but less funny as an adult.

You probably enjoy the bluntness of your friend, in other contexts.  You like that she tells it how she sees it, doesn’t hold back, and isn’t always perfectly PC.  However, you were hoping she would evolve over time.  Ignorant views in college students are to be expected—I’m so lucky I still have any friends who knew me in my early 20’s, a time of bizarre absolutes all over the political spectrum.  However, in adult life, friendships are really difficult to hold on to, and for all the effort one puts in, you don’t want to feel like you’re giving your time to someone who is on the wrong side of history.  It feels like collusion.

This friend has been placed in your lap so you can do your part in making change, starting right where you are.  Relationships are the only thing that change people.  The person with homophobic beliefs has to reconsider when they find out their beloved piano teacher is gay.  And someone with unconscious racist beliefs won’t change them unless people they care about start to stay, “Listen, this is not cool.”

So what you need to do is practice.  Talk about this issue with people you know agree with you, first.  Practice with people you don’t care as much about, too.  I remember when I first started confronting racism in conversations, and the visceral physical reaction you described happened to me.  I shook, I cried, I had to leave the room and hyperventilate.  But, over time, I was able to get those somatic responses under control and speak more freely.  I actually think it’s fine if you shake and cry—it could be compelling for your friend to see how much this means to you.  However, it would be best for your health if you didn’t go into anaphylactic shock every time you talk about this, so practice and breathe.

I actually don’t think you should pretend not to understand why an otherwise nice person holds these beliefs.  Because you do know.  You should be forward, direct, and use examples.  You can do this compassionately, in a way that helps put your friend’s statements into context, showing her that it’s not her fault that institutional racism exists, but it is her business and duty to recognize it and stop propagating it.

I suggest following up your conversation with some reading material for her to peruse.  An article your friend may connect with is Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which includes a list of day-to-day examples of how white privilege works itself out in real life.  She may not want to believe that all of the examples on the list are true, but there are at least a few that she will be unable to refute.  I do understand that this article is problematic, but it seems that your friend really needs to start slowly, although she should be encouraged quickly to move on to bell hooks.  This could be the beginning of a really important personal growth journey for her.

People do not want to acknowledge their own ignorance and privilege.  In order to get them to do so, you have to provide both positive and negative reasons.  For instance, you’ll be saying, “It makes me really uncomfortable and upset when you say these things.  It is why I didn’t call you for years.”  So, the message is, “your racism hurts your friends and makes them not want to hang out with you.”  But also you can tell her your journey, from unconsciously enjoying white privilege to being aware of it and trying to call it out when you can.  What have you gained from this process?  What personal growth can you offer her by becoming awake to how the world really works?

I think it is great that you don’t just want to cut this friend out of your life—that would be a missed opportunity for you both.  Just being aware of white privilege is not enough.  We have to have the courage to speak out about it when we see it, calling it out and encouraging the people in our lives to do the same.  And, what have you got to lose?  You said yourself you don’t want to have a bigoted friend, so give her the chance to evolve, and see what happens!  I really believe this is the only way things are ever going to change—one-on-one conversations with people we love.  The personal affection makes it matter in a way that a movie and a court case never can.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

A Little Walk

process_header

Flowers by Plenty of Posies. Photo by Wonderbliss Wedding Photography.

On the night before our wedding, I woke up when Brian came to bed and thought, “I can’t believe we got married and didn’t go to bed at the same time!” Then I walked to the hotel bathroom with its mysteriously and perpetually wet floor, flipped on the light and realized, no. It didn’t happen yet. That was just the rehearsal dinner.

When I woke up again, in the morning, it was grey and raining a little. “It’s supposed to be good luck if it rains on your wedding day,” I thought, and got dressed for coffee with the wedding team. Some logistics, vegan waffles, gossip in bed and a hot shower later and it was time to get ready.

A lot of the time, I try to want the minimum, take care of my own needs, be the helper. But on your wedding day, people don’t really let you do that. If you say, “Oh do her makeup first,” when it’s 3:00 PM and becoming clear that either you or your sister-in-law, but not both, will be getting her makeup done, nobody’s having it. So you sit down in the chair and someone brings you a bottle of water. Being able to feel fine about that feels freaking awesome.

While we were getting ready, my sister-in-law Wendy, a practical, hilarious class act, as both my sister-in-laws are, called down to order champagne. She possesses that innate understanding that some practical people have of how to celebrate—what to splurge on, where to pin a corsage, when to have another drink and when to call it a night. It’s a skillset that my parents and I lack, but that somehow my brother ended up with. All my in-laws have it, and I find it absolutely thrilling.

The guy on the other end of the phone told her, “I’m sorry, we only have sparkling wine.” (Who knew the Holiday Inn were such sticklers about authentic, Champagne-region Champagne, what with the baby poop in the lobby and all.)

“That’s fine,” Wendy said, in her quick, deadpan voice.

“Well, I don’t have a price list here. My manager will be here in an hour, so I can call you back then.”

“Well, why don’t you just figure out a price, and if it’s not reasonable, just . . . make it reasonable,” she said, before hanging up the phone.

My sister-in-law Karen looked at her approvingly, “That’s my kinda girl.”

My friend Allison’s wide-set baby mammal eyes trained on my face as she applied foundation and blush with little white sponges. I drank bottled water with my mouth in an O shape to try to avoid rubbing off my lipstick.

Around 5 PM, the photographer told us that she’d been down to the wedding site and the clouds had broken and the sun was out.

I hadn’t allowed enough time for getting ready and we had to start over on the hair a few times, so we ended up arriving at the ceremony about 15 minutes late. We pulled into the farmer’s market parking lot just as my cousin Ricky and his girlfriend Amanda arrived with their dog Buddy, a giant “man in a dog suit” kind of dog.

“Is it ok if we bring Buddy?” Amanda called out.

“I think I saw a sign saying no dogs in the pavillion?” I replied.

“Oh we asked someone, she said it’s really up to you.”

“Then sure!”

Who doesn’t want a man in a dog suit at their wedding?

The chaos, cheer, and rule-breaking of my family already in full effect, I felt heartened. We may not know how to class things up, but we know how to make things irreverent, which I think is equally important.

We walked through the gravel towards the market. Wendy and I held hands. When they dropped me off at my waiting area, Karen looked over her shoulder and said, in her 80’s movie star voice, “Don’t worry. You’re just takin’ a little walk.”

I watched them find their respective husbands and start down the aisle to the Peanuts song. The flower girl walked to her “mark” (the day before, at my panicked request, my friend Ted, a film director, had graciously taken over directing the rehearsal) and took the ring bearer’s hand. I started to walk out behind them and Ted stopped me, whispering, “Wait a second, we’re building a dramatic pause for you.”

The music changed to the traditional Here Comes The Bride. It was funny the things I ended up feeling traditional about. We didn’t have a cake or toss flowers or do the garter, but I wanted that song, and I made sure to have something old (my necklace), something new (my dress), something borrowed (thread and time from my friend Kara, who helped me hem my dress by hand, watching Pretty Little Liars on the internet, just like they did in the olden days), and something blue (my eyes.)

I went to my mark, and though my instinct is always to rush, I thought, “Molly, this is the one time it’s ok to make people wait.” Which is probably really for the best, given I rarely wear heels and my dress was nearly floor length.

I walked past the decorations, which I’d helped to coordinate but which were made into reality by friends. These friends who amaze me all the time with their creativity and art had made the space so beautiful, so much better than I’d envisioned it, and I’m pretty sure I started crying right then.

I made it (slowly) down the few steps to the area where everyone was sitting, and the first things I saw were a little kid and Buddy the dog sticking their heads into the aisle and I thought, “Yup. This is my wedding.”

Brian was standing all the way at the end of the dock, so he walked up as I walked down, and we met where the water meets the land. My friend Andrea was our officiant, and looked so beautiful that I got choked up like it was her wedding day.

I had to laugh at myself a little as she read the ceremony, which I had written, clearly in a time of great trepidation, for the whole thing is kind of a pep talk saying, “don’t be scared! You can do this!” But it turned out that once it was happening I wasn’t scared.

My friend Kallista read a poem about an old man saving toads in the road, because “they have places to go, too,” which Brian referenced a few days later as he carefully saved a large slug from getting stepped on. My friend Q read a passage by Pema Chodron and Brian’s brother Mike finished it up.

I’d partly picked that Pema Chodron piece because it talks about a pilot saving his passengers, and Brian’s father, who worked for a manufacturer that made airplane engine parts, starting in the foundry and ending up head of sales, loves pilots. But when I looked to see if he was enjoying it, I saw his eyes were closed and his mouth drawn in a frown, holding back tears, a pose he maintained the whole ceremony. I recognize that sensitivity because he passed it on to Brian, and it regularly breaks and melts my heart during funerals, weddings, and tv commercials alike.

I cried all during my vows, which I hadn’t thought I would. But with all those people there, showing up and making this day, how could I not be cracked open?

By midway through the reception, I became the “I love you, man!” guy from Wayne’s World.

I told family members I’ve never said it to before that I love them. My mom’s cousin Tamison, whose house we’ve stayed at about half the Thanksgivings of my life, whose house we’d stayed at, in fact, two nights before and who, incidentally, gave my friends and I her bed to sleep in, who spent the following day making 30 pies with us and then took us swimming, replied, with her signature wild grin and Mary Louise Parker-esque lack of jaw movement, “WHY?”

And I said easily, because for that one night everything felt easy, “I can’t help it, I just do.”

She seemed satisfied with that and replied, “Well, I happen to be very fond of all my family members, even the ones no one else likes!”

Which satisfied me.

When the reception was starting to wind down, a group of us went swimming, stripped down to underwear or nothing. The moon was almost full. I went in first (unlike me, but this night I was brave) and looked back at the glowing bodies wading through the water, like bathers in an old painting, or people performing a baptism ritual, or sirens.

When I was still in the midst of wedding planning minutia, my sister-in-law referred to the impending wedding as “the happiest day of Molly’s life.” I thought that was a ridiculously romantic thing to say. Why would a day that’s just about me and Brian be the happiest of my life? I love lots of people in lots of ways, not just him. But that, it turns out, is the point.

Swimming Lessons

me without you

We are Starfish, Henry and I. I pick him up early from daycare, and we worry through the traffic until we make it to his 4:15 class at the community pool. We are one of seven, maybe ten, parent-and-child pairs in the class. A teenage swim instructor has us circle up, parents holding toddlers. We sing "Motorboat" and "The Grand Old Duke of York" and "Ring around the Lily Pad," substituting swimming terms for the original nouns ("pocketful of posies" becomes "pocketful of frogies;" "ashes" become "splashes"). The kids instinctually do a sort of standing run in the water, legs kicking frantically and arms pushing the water down, as if to gain an imagined traction. Their little bodies are revved up on the new sensory experience, desperate to set out, not understanding that the pool isn't filled with invisible hands to support them. We parents hold them with one hand under their armpit, using our other arm to help us tread water in the deeper parts of the pool. We are treading for two. Our songs and supporting holds are an elaborate show, disguising the water's indifference to the kids' effort. I was holding Henry in this way, one hand palming the curve of his ribs where they wrap under the crook of his arm, as I made my way to the wall for a Humpty Dumpty (kids sit on the wall, parents sing "Humpty Dumpty," and kids jump into parents' arms). Most of the parents had already staked out spots on the wall, so I ventured into deeper water. I was on tiptoe — literally balanced on the tip of my big toe as I hopped my way toward the wall, my leg like a pogo stick. The arm holding Henry moved down through the water, involuntarily. I looked right and noticed that I had dunked him, pulled him right down, head under water. I jerked my arm up, and his head surfaced, wriggling and spastic, his suspended running legs supercharged and sprinting with fear. He let out a cry, then a high-pitched shriek signaling the turn from fear to anger. The other parents turned away from their kids to see. Henry's "Mom-eeee!" was outraged, accusatory, the kind I hear a lot lately.

"I'm so sorry, buddy, oh no. You're okay, you're okay . . ."

In these moments of injury and near misses and almost unlucky breaks, something in me shuts off, not down. It's not operated by a dimmer but a switch. My typically nervous, easy-to-panic nature flatlines. I am nonreactive, a passive cipher through which experience is happening, a situation unfolding where the only actor is inertia. I get self-conscious that other parents see this in me, that children stop to notice the adult whose instinct cannot be trusted. I am a milky-eyed inert mother who merely watches as her child acts out, behaves badly, drowns.

Is there anything more dismissive, more enraging, than being told you are okay when you're not?

I was four, Henry's age, when I learned how to swim. Before that, when I was a baby, Mom regularly took me to the pool in our apartment complex. She would get me comfortable in the water, swish me around with her hands cupping my armpits. There is a picture of us in the pool, Mom walking through the shallow end toward the steps, brow furrowed. She's carrying me under her arm like a football. I'm horizontal, head arched up and crying. The swimming lesson is over.

By the time I was four, I was playing in my godmother's pool. I was afraid to put my head under the water, so Mom urged me to practice by putting my face in little by little, starting with my mouth, then my nose, then my eyes. I was reluctant, terrified of the world under the surface, blurred and fuzzy with eerie, alien sounds. Mom suggested I jump in and that she would catch me. She stood a few feet from the wall, arms outstretched to receive me. I jumped, and she wasn't there. Water plumed up my nose, and in that first experience of flooded nostrils and burning sinuses, I was certain that something had gone horribly wrong and I was drowning. My hands paddled furiously in front of me to get my head out of the water. I coughed and sputtered. Mom held me and hoorayed, trying to drum up enthusiasm for the big achievement of getting my head underwater for the first time.

"Sometimes you can't think about things; you just have to jump in, feet first."

I was mad in that way that devolves into tears, which only makes you angrier because the tears betray the fury you want to communicate, and this frustration mixed with the inciting anger makes you cry more. I sulked, and my mom and godmother chastised me for not appreciating the lesson imparted. When they became lost in conversation, I sat quietly on the pool steps and practiced putting my face under the surface. Lips first, then nose, then eyes. I've been swimming underwater ever since.

What About Your Friends?

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sybil,

A little over a year ago my husband and I moved to a new city. We both value community and relationships and digging into a place in an attempt to give it all we've got. Unfortunately, especially as a couple, we have not been able to find "our people". The few friends we have made fit into these categories:

1. We have connected as a foursome but one is moving away this week.

2. We have reached out (they are really interesting and like-minded) but they are so busy that they never seem to be free.

3. I have connected with one, but he hasn't connected with them.

and lastly (the question is coming, I promise)...

4. We were connected by mutual friends- I can find ways of tolerating and enjoying them, and he is (rightly) at the end of his rope.

So, I want to talk about the last couple. They are not bad people, just one of those couples who are difficult. She, as an individual and one on one is kind and sweet- as well as negative, critical, and needs to be right. They, as a couple, are extra hard. They are much more spendy than we are, constantly needing to be at the best or most popular restaurants. She talks down to him and regularly brings up her ex in weird ways which is super awkward. Recently they offered to sell me tickets to a festival, and when I couldn't afford it at the price they offered- he proceeded to offer them on facebook for half the price without telling me he was willing to do that.

This last thing sent my husband over the edge. He is over it. He feels they are rude, difficult, and obnoxious. I sometimes feel the same, but also have had some sweet interactions- and I want to be careful because we really love the mutual friends who connected us, and whom go really far back with this couple.

This couple is trying to get pregnant and the way that is unfolding is also annoying to me. That sounds weird, but too much to bother going into. She is a lot of work.

I am aware that if we end up having a kid here, that others with children will be valuable and especially other women will be important to me. I am also aware that sometimes I am too tolerant. I would like to keep a connection but even if I do, I will at some point have to confront that my partner pretty much never wants to hang out with them again and if he had to he'd probably stick it to them. I have this sneaking suspicion that the more forward and clear I am the better she will take it, and that she can actually take it. It's possible things could grow with her.

Is it worth the slow (possibly unfruitful) effort? Should I accept being lonely over tolerating an exhausting friendship? I sense it's not time to let go completely.

HELP!

Yours,

Exhausted but hopeful

Dear EBH,

Moving to a new city is a chance to reinvent yourself, but isn’t it interesting that people are difficult, everywhere you go?  People are difficult, and worth it, but at what cost?

My father always told me, “Be careful who you hang out with.”  He was worried that my friends would get me into trouble, but also was trying to impart to me that human nature is that you are influenced by the people you spend time with.  It has taken me a long time to listen to my dad’s advice, and, to be honest, sometimes I still ignore it and dive into friendships with people who are very dodgy and could get me into some situations I’ll later regret.  But I’m starting to be more and more careful to only hang out with people who I actually admire, not just enjoy.  I’m spending time and effort on those folks who really enrich my life in some way, who have things in their life I want to grow in myself, and that simply make me feel more alive when I’m with them.

Friends are not charity cases.  Someone who is “a lot of work” is work, not friendship.  That’s a client.  Friendships should never be “tolerated”, and leave you at the point of exhaustion.  This relationship is the equivalent of you wearing a terrible dress that feels itchy and looks awful, even though you have other ones in your closet, because you like the person that gave you the dress.  Take that ugly dress off, and give it away - it could be someone else’s favorite garment!  But honey, it’s not doing you any favors.

The nature of friendship should be a mutual affection, and desire to get to know one another, rather than any kind of duty, especially to a third party, like the friends who introduced you.  You have a duty to your family (and even that is negotiable), but friendships have to be free of “shoulds” to thrive.  So, to answer your most pressing question, yes, you must stop hanging out with people who consistently make you and your husband uncomfortable.

The unpleasantness of slowly having less contact, declining invites and not adding them to your evening plans will be undercut by the space this will leave for you to make a different friendship.  Believe me, it will come, but you have to create time for it.

This couple might be perfect friends for someone else, but for you and your husband, they are crazymakers.  Stop trying to be someone you’re not by continuing to invest in these relationships.  Listen to your husband’s judgment here, and just stop calling those people.

If your mutual friends ask about it, be honest.  Say, “We didn’t click with them.”  I have a suspicion that your friends will know why.

The main message I want you to hear is TRUST.  You have to trust yourself, your gut, your desires.  So, the people you really do like but your husband doesn’t?  Hang out with them when he’s busy, and enjoy them thoroughly.  The people who never have time for you?  Let them go, pursue someone whose energy flows back to you.  And believe me, when it is time to have kids, your friendships will go through another overhaul, so there’s no use stockpiling people who could be parent-friends in the future.  Your people will come to you at that time, in weird and wonderful ways.

Friendships go through ups and downs, and what holds them together is love.  And love cannot be forced.  Love can bloom in loneliness but not in resentment.  Create space in your life for the relationships you really want, and trust yourself to know who to dig deeper with. If you keep digging with your current options, you’re just going to keep hitting stone.

Love,

Sibyl

What Are You Writing?

what are you writing jenny hollowell?

In my last column, interlaced throughout was a yearning for second chances. For Jenny Hollowell, her focus lies on a second book, a project that hearkens back to the arduous task of completing her first novel Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe. All of the same fears, insecurities, and thoughts of isolation when writing come back with a fury, but Ms. Hollowell has taken this second leap, and fights right back. She currently resides in Los Angeles with husband, and two daughters. A more extensive write-up on her can be found here.

- Samantha Bohnert 

I am working on my second book. I’m two years into the process and suspect I have about two more years to go. The first book took about four years too. I’ve had some well-intentioned friends express surprise that a second novel could take as long as the first. They’ve said to me, “But you know what you’re doing now.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since writing that first book, I possess exactly one new piece of relevant information: I’ve done this once before. But it isn’t easier. I am finding that my experience only makes me more aware of when a sentence isn’t working, or when a character feels thinly drawn, or when I’m settling for good enough instead of truly good. It is still a daily battle to dig deep, to be clear, and to grapple with meaning in a way that feels true and worth telling.

One of the many destructive trains of thought a writer can follow is that every other writer knows what they’re doing, and that you are alone in feeling lost, incapable some days of rendering even a simple sentence with clarity. This is the myth that too many of us believe: that to "normal" or "real" writers, writing comes easily. That it’s never a slog for them, that they never feel hopeless or come up empty.

Writing is isolating enough without feeding the illusion that we’re also alone in that sense of lostness. I suspect that writers at any stage of their writing lives—whether we have two years under our belts, or ten years, or thirty—are mostly doing the same thing. We’re sitting at our desks feeling not quite up to the task. But if we wait for the moment we feel truly ready for it, well, we would never write a word.

This is where belief comes in. Finding the faith, however irrational, that this will all amount to something in the end. The good sentences will add up, and the bad ones will get discarded, and eventually you will have written something great. Yes. This. Will. Happen.

Sometimes that belief originates from a person in a writing group, or a teacher, an agent, a friend. Maybe they read a few pages and see the promise. They write, “Keep going!” in the corner of the top page, and that’s reason enough to do as they say, to keep going and see where the going takes you.

Sometimes that belief comes from someplace more unexpected. From a painting, a dream, a stranger. While writing my first book I had a chance encounter with a swami in Los Angeles. He stopped me on a sidewalk in Los Feliz and told me he had just seen a vision of my future. This was outside of Skylight Books, and I had just been wandering the aisles, flipping through novels and daydreaming. His sudden appearance—in flowing orange robes, by my parking meter—felt magical, like turning a page and meeting a new character.

He wrote my initials down on a piece of paper to show that he could “see things about me.” Then he wrote my husband’s. “Was I right?” he asked. I nodded, rooted to the ground. Then he said what he wanted to tell me. That he could see that I was having difficulty with a very big project, but that the situation would improve and the project would be completed the following year. Then he gave me a talisman, a small wax seal, to carry for luck.

As he walked away, I remember experiencing two thoughts at the exact same time. That was insane. And oh, thank God! His prediction was mystical, irrational, and exactly what I needed. I needed to encounter the radical belief that I would finish my novel. I needed someone to say that it could be done and that it would be done, that it was a foreseen conclusion.

Now, as I work on this second book, I try to hold on to that sense of belief as the sentences pile up slowly and as my page count ebbs and flows. I’ve kept the talisman that the swami gave me. Sometimes I go entire months without thinking of it, and then suddenly I will. I will remember it because it has been a dry day, or a dry week, or I’ve battled with a difficult scene, or I’ve cut pages that weren’t working, pages that used to feel just fine. I’ll remember it because I need it.

Then I pull the seal from its hiding place and hold it in the palm of my hand. I make myself remember. It’s not finished yet, but it will be.

This Actually Happened

loud and clear this actually happened

The Postal Service only released one album, a decade ago this year. There is no progression---no growing with or apart from the artist, no moment they went mainstream. It's weird to be old enough now to do things purely for nostalgia's sake. But, I have a feeling that's why most of us were there. That album was a sound marked with a date-stamp, a frozen snapshot of something we once loved.

Before Ben Gibbard started the second song he spoke into the microphone: "this actually happened."   The song was about a dream he had, and maybe that's what he was referring to.

Or, maybe “this” meant sixteen: a kind of affirmation to everything that had unfolded ten years ago, including the  minute, somewhere in there, where I put a burned cd into the slot of my car stereo, the words Give Up written with sharpie. That time is so far gone that it has been reduced to a few choice scenes and heavy emotions that feel too ungrounded to have actually occurred. But these songs are a relic---existential proof---of the summer I sat on the end of a dock in an Oregon town with the first boy I ever truly wanted and a bottle of raspberry Smirnoff that tasted nothing like the sugar syrup smell. Each time I hear a song from that album (usually now on a cafe playlist of muzak) a few disjointed scenes are unearthed and they are, inevitably, of summer.

There's something about this season that makes the people and places linger in our memories with all the shadowy contract of a sun high over-head. They become inky outlines in our mind, of short-lived loves and seasonal friendships that occupy a disproportionate share of my memory.

Over the balcony, a thousand heads glowed below me, and I wondered what they remembered. I couldn't see their mouths, but I could hear them singing along to the final words of the final song, “everything will change”---like a mantra said over and over. It was a message to each of us, ten years back, feeling as if the afternoon was forever. We didn't know then about the way things fade. Or that the summers would become flickers inside us, and the music would keep them alight.

 

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

Introverts on the Internet

I was on my way to a first-time meet-up with some women I’d been admiring quietly online for a while. I loved their work and believed so much in what they were doing. And then, when the opportunity arose to meet in real life, well, it seemed too good to be true. Of course I would go. Except, the thought of meeting in person also set my already overactive worry machine spinning. I’m sure most anyone would get butterflies at the idea of meeting her idol. But it was deeper than that. It was the worry about kale in my teeth or saying something awkward, but it was also the worry about being disappointing or disappointed.

And so, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do: I phoned a wise friend for advice. Here is what she said.

Arrive early, and pretend that you’re the hostess. Make it your job to make sure everyone else is having a good time.

At first, it seemed counterintuitive. What about being fashionably late? Isn’t it awkward being the first one to arrive?

I took her advice, though, and it worked like magic. I arrived at the hip (and rather intimidating) bar just as the door was being propped open. I gave the bartender a shrug—“I guess I’m early?”—and played musical chairs among all the empty stools until I found the one I liked. After perusing the menu for a long while, I knew just what to order and what to recommend.

By the time the others began trickling in, I felt at home, and I wanted to make sure everyone else felt that way too. I made a point of saying warm hellos and of staying late for the last warm goodbyes. For the whole middle of the event—the part with overlapping voices and jostling for attention—I was a quiet observer, taking note of social dynamics and the ebb and flow of conversation. Meaningful bookends to the evening were my first priority.

In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, she recommends a similar approach to parents of introverted children. When it comes to large gatherings, she says, “It’s much easier to be one of the earlier guests, so your child feels as if other people are joining him in a space that he 'owns,' rather than having to break into a preexisting group.”

I’ve taken this advice to heart for in-person gatherings, but I’ve often wondered what to do about introversion online. Unless you’ve just started your very own community with yourself as the first member, it is nearly impossible to ever feel that you’ve joined an internet community or conversation early. How often have I come across a blog post that’s months old but feels as if it’s speaking directly to me, right now. Then, my excitement gives way to disappointment as the end of the article begets a “conversation” in the comments that’s 800-posts long. My initial impulse to respond and connect over the topic is shut down by the sense that the party was way too big, and more importantly, is long over. How could I possibly come up with anything interesting to contribute?

It happens too with online communities. An internet space you’d never heard of catches you off-guard, and you smile with anticipation while creating an account. But the process culminates in one of those inevitable “Who to Follow” pages, complete with an illustrious welcoming committee of celebrities and internet personalities. A rock lands in the pit of your stomach. Oh, no! I’m already late, and everyone else is already here.

I felt that way when I first joined Twitter. I remember remarking aloud that it felt like shouting in a crowded room. Why is everyone yelling? I thought. I couldn’t actually hear them, of course, but something about the fast-paced stream updating in real time seemed loud and overwhelming. It was as if I were standing on the sidelines of a chaotic race, looking hard for an opening to join in too.

It took some listening and observing, but before long, I caught the rhythm of the conversation. Fast forward to today, and Twitter is just another one of the many ways I communicate. It has its own rituals and idiosyncrasies, like any community, but by now, it feels familiar. I wonder, though, about my fellow introverts, especially those on the sidelines of internet conversations, waiting for an opening or an invitation to participate.

If the internet had a doorway, I’d love to stand at the entrance with a sign that says, “Welcome, quiet people.” We could gather at the entrance to stare at each others’ shoes and then work up the courage together to make our way toward all of the commotion. I’d want to make sure that every voice was valued, even (and especially) those who need some time for reflection before jumping into the fray.