Art, Body Acceptance, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Mental Health, Prose

My Eternal Creative Space

I am working with an art therapy book geared toward body acceptance and the first art prompt was to depict our ideal creative space. I think the idea was to draw what houseplants and implements and draperies we would like in our art room, but this is what I came out with instead. It may not be a still life style depiction of what my ideal creativity space would look like–I would never be able to realistically draw a grand piano, an ancient viola, stacks and stacks of sheet music, an art table big enough to lie down on, cement floor to make messes easier to be messy, a photo studio, a recording studio, a big sink, every brush and paint and crayon and color and implement known to man, redwood tall shelves of books, red velvet chairs, open atlases mapping out all the adventures I’ve had and am yet to have, and above it all, the ceiling painted with the zodiac so I have a mapped out sky and eternally turning fate overhead always–I may not be able to realistically draw any of that, but what I did come up with accurately represents what would be going on in that space in the ether, among all that glorious stuff while the art was happening. There would be the spirit of Mercury, planet and god, and a Valentine from him charged electric positive and negative. There would be wild hair–my hair–probably red and black paint in my wild white hair. There would be me looking through my glasses, their dark frame the slightly warped symbol for infinity. My poodle, blue in this drawing for tranquility, would be there nosing my hands across the page in smarter directions than I would have ever thought of on my own. The numbers 12 and 21 would likely pop up everywhere, mysteriously as they do in every corner of my life already. The technological universe is coded on 0 and 1. My little universe is 1 and 2. There is eternity everywhere! The ouroboros, the dense spiral in Mercury’s head, the glasses… And yellow sunny swirls all over and underneath because this is Apollon and the Muses’ space as much as, if not more than mine. And finally, a treble clef because, in this space, everything sings.

-M. Ashley

Confession, Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay, Photography, Prose, Writing Life

Self-Portrait: 2022 Is Also All About My Hair

“There is a lot of breakage.” Don’t we all feel that way?

I balked when she said it and immediately went to defend myself. It must be the scrunchie I had near permanently in my mop since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s because I hadn’t had it cut since then. It’s because the hair is in terrible condition because of pandemic neglect and not, dear gods, because it’s falling out. It’s just broken not heading for the hills. It’s just broken, not endangered. It’s just broken—more, healthy, unbroken hair is just behind it.

I got it cut in December 2021 and I feel like a human again. The broken hairs are still broken, but the unbroken ones are no longer frayed like D-grade straw, looking like a witch’s hair. Gods, was I ever embarrassed when I walked my straw haired witch’s self into the Great Clips and asked them to whack the mess off. The stylist was understanding, matter of fact as the hay hit the floor, and gave me a marvelous new start, jawline length, relief from all the burden of the last two years that had fallen well past my shoulders and almost all the way down to my waist.

So the broken ones are still broken, but they’re also still growing and now don’t have so far to go to catch up to their unbroken sisters. The mop isn’t so long that I have to keep it up in a scrunchie anymore. I don’t have to be bound all the time. No more mass breakage is imminent. 2022 is going to be a good year.

How much further can I carry this hairy pandemic metaphor? Let’s see:

The thing about the short curly hair is that there is no second chance. There is no second day hair so, if you’re going somewhere, if anyone else is meant to see you, you must must must take care of it day by day. It’s a hassle when we’ve all gotten so used to not caring much about ourselves as we huddle and hide away. But also a sign of health, this hassle, and anything, even if it’s vanity, that forces you to bathe and primp and proper yourself, is a good thing and a godsend in a time when it’s far too easy just to let go.

With the short curly do that gives no second chances, I wake up from tossing nights looking like Einstein. That’s why I was able to come up with such completely original, genius, and insightful observations about the pandemic vis-a-vis my hair.

Original, I tell you. Original.

I wish you all the best and healthiest in 2022. My goal is to be here more and make more super genius and purely original observations with both my words and my art, photographic and otherwise. My goal is to read more of your work as well. My hope is we will inspire each other. My hope is we will inspire each other enough so as to give each other the tingles. My hope is we will inspire each other enough that, tingling together, it makes our collective hair, broken and unbreakable, stand on end.

-M. Ashley

Photo: My submission for this week’s 52 Frames challenge, “Self-Portrait” I’m calling it “Gallows Humor.” Taken with an iPhone 10. Flash did not fire.

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.