Autumn Walk Diaries, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Life

Autumn Walk Diaries: Smoke and Fire

Next-day smoke from the University Fire

The thing this morning was smoke.

We walk at around nine or ten and, at around nine or ten, the scene over Little Mountain towards Devore and the Cajon Pass was bleak.

We wish for gray skies here. We hope for it. We pray for it. Some of us may even bay at the moon and dance for it—thirsty, drought stricken, dead lawn denizens that we are. But that gray ain’t rain clouds, brother.

Little Mountain was on fire yesterday—not our bit of it, but the bit of it one neighborhood away, closer to the freeway where my great aunt and uncle lived for forty years, north of the 215 freeway, south of all those houses… all those houses. Everyone was evacuated. Water drop helicopters landed in the neighborhood park. City and county fire descended and ascended upon it from all possible angles. They put the fire down so fast, it barely made the local news and was but a mild ripple even amongst the busybody neighbors on Nextdoor.

Little Mountain is on fire a lot. Our people know how to fight that fire. Our people have always been victorious. Not a single house or business has ever been burned in that spot. We are very blessed. We are very lucky. We are willful that we go on living here, year after year, fire after fire… after fire after fire after fire.

So this morning, the thing was a sky over the mountain filled with orangey gray that smells like God’s barbecue and promises nothing but swimming pools, A/C filters, and formerly pink lungs full of ash.

Weirdly, though, a hopeful sight: smoke in the sky, no longer connected to the earth below—no longer a real threat, no longer a panic, no longer everyone’s nightmare. A little relief. More than a little gratitude all those houses were saved and we can go back from praying our neighbors make it, to praying one day we get friendlier clouds filled with rain.

-M.

Autumn Walk Diaries, Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay, Prose

Autumn Walk Diaries: The Mailman Knows Too Much

There wasn’t much afoot on our walk this morning–how very clever of me–and we pretty much had the neighborhood to ourselves, which is just the way I like it. I pretend Kismet likes it that way too, but I’m sure her mighty, sporty poodle heart would prefer some action.

Rounding the last turn from Sheridan onto Clemson, the mailman swung around to the box next to us as we passed the last house. We see the mailman every day, but usually he is across the street and we prefer it that way because yuck–human interaction and, yuck–having to be conscious for a few seconds of our walk just long enough to say “good morning. “

I’m feeling a bit like the troll who lives under the bridge today when really, in my own mighty sporty poodle heart, I love saying good morning to people on our walks and look forward to announcing to my family, upon my return, who all I had the polite exchange with. (With who all I had the polite exchange? “Who all” is the problem with that sentence I think.)

Kismet and I talked to our mailman once before. She barked at him and I had to reassure him it was just that she is afraid of cars. Nothing personal.

“It’s not the mailman thing then, huh?” He said and laughed.

“No,” I said. “I’m sure she’d love you if she knew you.” Then I felt weird, like I accidentally flirted. Another one of the 50,000 ways Michelle makes herself uncomfortable while the other party thinks nothing of it.

Before pulling off to the next mailbox, he said, “I dropped a package for you at your door.”

“Thank you,” I said and walked away, feeling oddly creepy that, although we met a street away from mine, the mailman my dog barked at and with whom I accidentally flirted knows who I am and to which house I belong.

Shouldn’t that be the most natural thing? I know where he belongs: in his truck, doing his route between 9 and 10 every day. Why shouldn’t he know where I belong: walking past his truck, going in and out of that one house, albino plus black and white poodle in the neighborhood between 9 and 10 every day?

Nothing even remotely creepy in it except my own creepy mind.

Cheers to the mailman then. I know we shall meet again.

I would say “Happy fall y’all” but I’m a Southern Californian which is the wrong kind of southern for that. So instead, have a like awesome autumn or whatever. There. That’s much better.

-M.

PS
Thanks for the package.

Creative Nonfiction, Fears, Personal Essay, Photo Playbook Challenge, Photography, Prose, Writing Life, Writing On Writing

Photo Prose: Dread Box

Picking up any pen is hard. Opening my notebook is one of the Herculean trials—the hard one.

Getting past the rickety-ness is worse still. It’s like hearing Atlas’ ancient knees pop as he hefts the Earth one more day. One more day. One more day.

I dread goals. I dread the lazy, yawning “what next” after I reach one. I dread not reaching any.

I dread being a flake—but worse, a joyless flake. No one loves a joyless flake like no one loves a fat person who is not jolly. I dread also being the fat person who is not jolly.

I dread my credit card payments. I keep my dreaded credit cards under my dreaded pens to keep me from the dreadful using them.

I keep lip balm under the dread pens and cards. Most of all, I dread being kissed unready.

-M.
Photography Playbook Prompt: Something you dread.

Creative Nonfiction, Fears, Personal Essay, Photo Playbook Challenge, Photography, Prose, Writing Life, Writing On Writing

Not “My” but “Our” Worst Fear

Photo Prompt: What is your worst fear?

Let’s get vulnerable with each other. Let’s get naked and play the mirror game. Let’s do it in front of a group of twenty-somethings with their whole brilliant lives ahead of them. Let us let them sit cross-legged in a circle around us and let us let them bombard us with questions as we try to mirror each other’s movements exactly.

We’ll have to answer honestly and be beastly to ourselves in this game because it is impossible to lie focused only on each other, move for move, even down to the twitch in the corner of my mouth and yours when someone lazily lobs, “What is your worst feat?”

We say, “This.”

We are afraid of this. We are afraid of only ever being as good as each other, locked in the hopelessness of leprous perfectionism. Not singly—mutually. Each other’s. Always each other’s.

We are afraid of this: falling short, move for move, in each other’s eyes forever.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Photo Playbook Challenge, Photography, Prose

Too Much Time Like Too Much Money

Photo Prompt: Parameters

Having too much time is like having too much money—it’s an asshole thing to complain about, but still a problem.

Whoever painted this mystery on my street—likely an alien—knew clearly where she was going and clearly where everyone else should be and what we all should avoid. She knew to tell everyone that if they dug here, something terrible would explode. Warning was the alien’s meaningful work.

She wrote: It would all go down in February.

Someone who came after—likely a human, likely me with my one blue running foot rudely in the shot—must have had too much time on her hands—an asshole problem—and, grasping around for something to fill her hours, investigated the alien’s code, aware only of its mystery and not its warning. She must have taken the arrow to indicate her life path and dug there foolishly—hoping to find her purpose entombed in the asphalt. Instead, our Pandora released the malicious thing, nailing her, the wise alien, and everyone else who had heretofore been busy.

It all went down in February.

Every now and then she comes out to kneel by the blackened hole in the cracked and cracking street. She cranes her neck to observe the bloom of the mushroom cloud she made and picks gravel from under her unmanicured nails. Locked down like all of us, she has all the time in the world for this.

She wonders dangerously, “What now?”

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Life

Bars and Blue Sky

Dostoyevsky said, “Life is life everywhere.” I don’t remember where or when he said it, but his mind was on human suffering in Siberia.

Bars and blue are the view from my office window. I live in a dirty, dying town in the inland desert of Southern California. We call it an empire. My neighborhood is ghetto-lite, but still rough enough to have warranted bars on all the doors and windows since 1985.

Here in the SoCal inland desert empire, it is green and, in the winter, the temperature rarely dips below forty degrees. The snow, in Siberia, is like bars I’m sure, but unlike these in my window, inescapable. Blue sky, like life, is blue sky everywhere though and we have at least these two things in common which, as I stand in the sun, un-barred, I’m sure is much more comfort to me on blue days wishing for the shocking sanctity of suffering and snow than it is to them on days that are nothing but sanctity, suffering, and snow

-M..

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Stuff and Treasure

I have a book of Guy du Maupassant stories. On the cover is an impressionist painting of a woman coming out of the bath, drying her feet. I assume it’s by Degas because he’s the impressionist I did my high school French class report on and, as far as I’m concerned, all impressionist paintings that aren’t famously and obviously by some other painter, were painted by Degas.

Degas started going blind at the end of his career. Tragedy. Tragedy for him and for us. I am legally blind. The tragedy is merely personal. The world does not mourn a loss over the fact that reading, for me, is slow and difficult. I have to be choosy about what I read because it takes so much time and effort. In college, I chose to read that book of Maupassant stories. After college, I chose to read it three more times.

Those stories can be a little like Far Side cartoons. Sometimes you don’t get it on your first shot. Sometimes you need someone to explain the world and the ending to you.

My junior year of college, I had a little time between this and that, who knows—I don’t remember the obligations, I only remember the time in between. There was an in between place on the Vanderbilt campus where four paths met in a sort of pedestrian roundabout. At the center of the circle was a planter overflowing with the campus’ signature Spring gold tulips. At the center of the planter was a blossoming dogwood, shedding its white, covering the ground in floral snow. The circle was bordered by ancient shade trees and magnolias. There were antique style street lamps dotted around. At night, they cast pale blue efficiency light. There were glossy wooden benches.

I was alone in the circle, in the in between time, in the in between place, sitting on one of the glossy benches. I was reading Guy du Maupassant.

I read a story about a man who observes another man’s gaudy, worldly treasures and also his beautiful daughter and wife. That’s the whole of the story—the observations of the one man and the bragging of the other on all his gaudy, worldly possessions. It’s the kind of story that, when it ends, you flip the pages expecting another ending and find only the beginning of another story. Maybe the printer made a mistake.

I stood up from my glossy bench, chewing on it. I went to my other obligation. I went back to my dorm room overstuffed with the detritus of a busy college career. I called my mom.

I told my mom about the story and asked her what she thought it meant. She said it was quite obvious, wasn’t it? The treasure was the women. In all that house full of stuff, (I looked around my own room and was embarrassed), in that house full of stuff,, (I thought about how often I had walked through that in between place circle with its gold tulips and dogwood snow and ignored it on my way from stuff-to-do to other stuff-to-do and was embarrassed), in that house full of stuff, the women were the treasure. The family bond was the precious thing,

I thought about how often I neglected to call home in favor of some seemingly more pressing or interesting stuff. I was embarrassed. My life was stuffed with such stuff.

I told my mom she was an epiphany. I asked her how her day had gone.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Baseball. Ellipsis.

Talk about a period where you have not read.

Ellipses immediately come to mind. Periods where I have not read because there was nothing there to read. Periods where I have not read because what is missing and what I could fill into that emptiness would be too frightening. I have large parts of my life that are ellipses in that regard. I have large parts of my life that trail off on the page. I have large parts of my life where the lips stop murmuring along with the text. I have long periods in my life where the face turns away, where the throat clears, where the mind starts wondering what’s for dinner, where the legs pick the body up, stand, and walk away.

The devil is in the periods I have not read. The devil is in the missing details.

I went off to college at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN. I had three beautiful years of freedom there. I read a lot. I didn’t read anything I was supposed to read all the way to the end.

I had a teacher in high school who warned us that our study habits wouldn’t change when we went to college. He told us we better get our stuff together now, because if not now, never. He was right. My study habits didn’t change. I never read anything I was supposed to read in high school to the end, and I didn’t in college either. What he failed to mention was that in college, high school habits may not have the same outcome as they do in college. In high school, my writing ability covering all the periods I did not read didn’t carry me through. There was busy work to be done along with it. An A on a paper did not overshadow all the pages of definitions I did not dutifully copy. In college, however, where all that busywork is stripped away, where you are left to your own devices as far as the final product is concerned, my talent carried me gloriously over all the periods I did not read and my grades went from strikeout to home run.

It makes me think of a team carrying their star player around after she wins the big game for them. My words were like that. They have carried me that way. They have poured Gatorade over my head. They have slapped my ass in encouragement. They have depended on me showing up for each and every game.

I could not finish the game.

Three years of freedom in college, periods I read and periods I trailed off, and periods I did not read at all… then darkness. Abuse. Bad men. A dead, dark stop in an otherwise bright and promising life. Three hard periods. An ellipsis. Nothing to read here. End of page.

Seven and a half years of end-of-page—ellipsis after ellipsis after ellipses—periods the whole world turned away from—weeping that was never recorded.

Until now.

The words tap me tenderly on the ass. Pre season starts soon and, quick as wink, we will be finishing the game we started so many years ago, and this time, I have no excuse not to show up, not to play to the final inning, even if we go into overtime.

I’ve mixed baseball with ellipses. One of my favorite lines of poetry, “Dear God, we lurch from metaphor to metaphor.”

I’ve spent plenty of periods not reading while watching baseball. There’s a rhythm to it, to not reading and to baseball. The head nods. An exciting moment is sure to come… eventually.

A baseball is sort of like a period. (We must connect the dots.)

A baseball is sort of like a period, only it comes at you at nearly 100mph. It’s the end of the ellipsis, it’s the call to action, it’s the what now, brother? Do you swing or do you miss? Do you play or do you cower? Do you lean into it? Do you want to win the game badly enough to risk brain injury?

The pitcher winds up. The pupils dilate The muscles tense. The final period is hurled. All muscle memory. Not a conscious thought.

New page.

Swing.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Life, Writing On Writing

Perhaps I Should Stick to Writing

What have I carried and gnawed over?

I was going to be a film composer. I had a stack of Film Score Monthly tall and leaning as Pisa’s tower. I looked forward to that mag coming each month the way you look forward to unexpected money in the mail. I carried it with me wherever I went until it was read from one end to the other and back again. I knew all the current composers. If they had trading cards, I would have owned them all and memorized all their stats.

I bought a Korg electric piano for my first apartment. It was the first thing I ever bought on credit. It was $1,200. The credit card company called me to make sure I meant the purchase. Oh yes. Yes I meant it. I was $1,200 and more worth of serious.

I took piano, violin, and theory lessons from a Hungarian who escaped Communism and had almost more stories about that than he had musical wisdom. I didn’t mind. I was in it for the long haul. I did composition exercises from his Hungarian music university textbooks. I couldn’t read the explanations, but I could do the musical math.

I wrote songs for each of my family members. I wrote songs for each of my friends. I wrote a song for Clementi from whose sonatinas I learned keyboard basics.

I made a giant packet of all my composition exercises and all my songs and put it in the box of the head of the composition department at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. I swaggered back to my apartment and my credited piano and awaited his call. When he did call and invite me to see him, I strutted confidently into his office, ready for my new career to begin in a bright flash of praise and appreciation.

The professor brought out my composition exercises first. He showed me every mistake I made. He said I didn’t know anything about something called “voice leading.” He pointed out every crooked stem on every not perfectly round note.

He went for my singing next. He had me sing a major scale and I came out with it easily. He asked me to sing a minor scale and I faltered, reverting to the major on three different attempts. He said he would have to tell me someday why that happens.

Finally, he brought out my Clementi. He said he didn’t understand why I started it on what was clearly not the downbeat. He said it sounded nothing like Clementi. He said he had composition students who could do Clementi in their sleep.

He said, “You obviously have a love for tonal music, but a complete lack of the talent necessary to create it.”

He broke my world.

I wrote him a letter the next day. I told him in two pages how I was going to prove him wrong. I wrote something about the shining prize on the top of the hill that I would do anything to attain. I said a lot of inspirational things. I was on fire.

He wrote back that I had a great talent for writing. He wrote that I should, perhaps, stick to writing.

Every time I sit down to write, I gnaw on that.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Mental Health, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

What I Really Want to Say

What I really want to say is I’m too old for this shit. What I really want to say is that I worry about my age and how I’ve not managed to fly or fall yet. I’ve neither sunk nor swum.

What I really want to say is that whenever you have the opportunity to use “swum,” do it. It’s good for the soul.

I want to tell someone I’m worried and have them tell me it’s going to be all right. I want Father Time himself to tell me my clock hasn’t run out. I want him to tell me I won’t look weird standing at the starting line or, more like the registration table, at forty-two. I want Mother Nature herself to tell me my body won’t give out midway through and I’m still fit for the race.

I want someone to understand the concept of perpetual kitten-hood and how wild cats don’t meow. They purr, they hiss, they growl, but they don’t meow.

I was a wild cat once. I’ve moved forward. I’ve moved back. I’ve moved away. I’ve moved back home.

Where is home? Where is finally, finally home? I really want someone to tell me.

I want someone to tell me my former wildness is as true as I hope it is. I want someone to tell me I still have it in me. I want someone to tell me that re-learned, life-and-death kitten-hood doesn’t have to be permanent.

What I really want to say is I hope I don’t have to sing to my empty bowl forever.

I hope I won’t always be grateful just to eat from any hand that isn’t hurting me.

What I really want to say is that I’m angry, but I don’t know how exactly to say that without sounding like I’m reading out loud the results of a middle school science project. I can describe it. I cannot demonstrate. I cannot replicate the experiment.

What I really want to say is I’m grateful to have one human in my life who understands that pain draws in as much as it pours out and, if not pouring, it is possibly drawing in with black hole intensity. Not a lot of people have that person. What I really want to say is I’m lucky.

What I really want to talk about is all the reasons I have to be angry and I want someone to be outraged with me. I want someone to show me what outrage looks like if it doesn’t look like eating your own heart and all the cookies in the box. I want someone to show me how it’s done and to do it with me.

What I really want to say is that I hope I don’t destroy myself before I create myself in the first place.

-M.