Nature Prose, Photography, Prose, Writing Life

Sunrise: From Nashville to Berdoo

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Late Winter Sunrise: San Bernardino, Inland Empire, SoCal.

Today I am grateful for the sunrise under which I started my morning writing. In the east it looked like the heavens and earth were on fire. In the west the clouds spread in great pink streaks across a periwinkle sky. These are all common things to say about the sunrise, I know.

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Late Winter Sunrise and Hibiscus Flowers: San Bernardino, Inland Empire, SoCal.

I remember The Phantom Tollbooth and how one of the characters our heroes meet is Chroma the Great. He conducts the sunrise like music. Each rising color makes a tone or phrase of its own. I adore that book and I adore the movie and I adore the image. When I lived in Nashville I would sometimes (OK rarely) take a walk at this time of day and a little earlier. I didn’t have to worry about coyotes and other stray dogs trained to be killers there, not to mention actual killers. But in the hour or so before sunrise, I would walk along and look up at the sky and swear I could hear the planets singing as they moved both imperceptibly slow and unbelievably fast. It was as if I were a voyeur to their sacred praise of the gods and each other, crouched in the moist green, as I was, in a simple, working class neighborhood at the center of the Tennessee valley.

So I am grateful for the sunrise this morning and for the planets’ tender singing. It is wonderful to know they sing and praise and move on their courses everywhere, even over the concrete and brown grass, thirsty coyotes and other stray, unloved dogs.

-M.

Memoir, Prose

How Do My Breasts Look? (memoir)

go_cougar_womens_tshirtMy first boyfriend and I sweat together in my room with the door closed and his hand under my navy blue “Go Cougars!” T-shirt. I lay on the floor halfway underneath him, one of his creeping hands at the waistband of my white cotton shorts, the other pushing my shirt up. His alien fingers probed their way under the pale pink of my little girls’ bra that had been too tight for months. He didn’t kiss me. He gave me a hickey on my midriff instead and smiled, proud of himself the way he and his friends were often proud of their own farts. He got serious then and tugged at the band of my bra. I lay there bare-chested for the first time with a boy, still wearing my T-shirt that was now rolled up under my chin. He unceremoniously pinched my left nipple, then my right, frowned and announced, “Your boobs look funny.”

I don’t need a whole essay to tell you I never got over that.

In my later teens I’d stand sometimes in front of my mother’s full-length bedroom mirror and pull my Garfield pajama shirt tight over my chest and belly to get a better view of the curve of my breasts in relation to my other curves. I’d shift right and left—diagonal—I’d bounce, look back over one shoulder, turn around with one arm up behind my head, but I couldn’t tell. I’d pull my shirt up and wonder for a while at my nipples. I couldn’t figure them out either. Too big? Too small? Too low? Too pale? I didn’t know.

I once used a French class report on impressionist artists as an excuse to look at a lot of paintings of naked women so I wouldn’t look like a perv for getting close to the page, squinting at them, and comparing. One red-haired woman, all in fading yellow light, a royal blue wrap around her shoulders and her white underthings visible at her waist, appeared to have breasts that went at near right angles at the bottom—her tan nipples pointing this way and that. I thought surely mine weren’t quite as different as that, and even then, some artist found hers beautiful.

When I got older, I got brave once and asked a lover what he thought of the funny-looking breast issue. I should have known I wouldn’t get a straight answer considering his face was between them at the time.

But maybe that’s my problem—thinking “No!” kiss, “Not at all!” nibble, “Absolutely not!” muffled through busy lips—was not a straight answer.

-M.

Memoir, Prose

Envy (memoir)

Danny LeavesMy oldest dog—a red, hairy, shedding beast of a border collie/German shepherd mix will be turning ten this August and, at 50lbs, he still loves it when I pick him up and hold him in my arms like a baby.

He isn’t afraid of anything.

Whack him on the top of the head or his big fuzzy butt with a rolled newspaper and he barks, jumps, turns in circles in happy play, which it is.

He thinks his own farts are awesome—smiles a wide, bottom-toothy smile, spotted tongue lolling out the side like a broken window shade. Sometimes they make him sneeze. He wipes his nose on the carpet or, if I’m lucky, on my pant leg.

He isn’t afraid.

He isn’t afraid of the big blue vacuum monster either. He stalks it like the wild beast of mechanation it is, goes on the offensive, attacks with abandon.

I’ve had him since he was three months. I brought him home from the pound shivering a week before Thanksgiving. But I’ve come to the realization the shivering was an act to woo the weepy-eyed rubes, like me. I was wooed. I admit it.

He isn’t afraid of anything

He isn’t afraid because he was never taught he should be afraid.

I picked him up in my arms like a baby ten years ago—all six disingenuously shivering pounds of him, and he never had anything to fear after.

He lies on his back with his legs straight in the air and lets me scratch his tender belly with my toes, even if I’m standing up at the time—and my balance is terrible. And he knows my balance is terrible.

No fear.

No fear.

I think I’ll write this down. I think I’ll call it “Envy”.

-M.

Prose, Writing Life

By the Humping Doggie Balloon Animals, I’m Sure It’s Obvious My Poetry Reading Went Well

IMG_0517My big poetry reading was yesterday. I was so nervous I thought I was going to die or poop my pants, or turn around in a circle chasing my tail to the end of the universe and back. I contemplated backing out. I contemplated what the train ride and board would cost for me to slip away to Kalamazoo when no one was looking. But I saw myself in the mirror and the face that looked back at me said, “Oh, no you don’t.” So I didn’t.

I’m not going to lie. Smokey-smoke was involved. I took a puff or two, or five, before we left. They were little puffs, I told myself, little puffs to preserve my throat, so I needed a few more of them than I would usually have. My sister put on some Jazz to calm me down and, post-smoke, I walked around the house in my long, full skirt, swinging my hips, happy and relaxed, mouthing my poem to myself over the music.

My sister—ah my lovely, sparkly sister—did my makeup. We went for a 1920’s look, which is my look, but one I have no idea how to achieve on my own. I don’t know what magic happened there, but highlighter was flying all over the place and the time she spent on my eyes was akin to the hours Degas spent brush-stroking puffy little ballerinas. I came out with a slimmed face, big, big dark, alluring eyes, and Cupie lips. I ended up with a feather in my platinum hair.

My sister pinned a little button on me. She bought it for me in advance. It is red and white and says, “It’s my first time.” It was my first time, well, first time in a long time (almost twenty years… don’t tell anyone) and, Jesus, the nerves started to come back.

My brother-in-law took the twisty-turny way to the bookstore and the smokey-smoke kicked in again. I giggled all the way there and laughed uproariously at the view, at the drop, at the too-close-for-comfort turns. I thanked my brother-in-law in all seriousness for his coming, his driving us, his being such a good sport about having to go back in the house twenty-six thousand times when we were getting ready to leave in order to retrieve all the this and that my sister and I had forgotten.

I was the first to show up, the first to sign up—lucky number three in big black marker on an unsuspecting piece of blue flyer paper. We were there almost an hour early. Nervousness makes for punctuality overachievement. After I signed my name, my sister and I walked down to the dollar store to buy our winning lottery tickets. The cashier said, “May the odds be in your favor,” and surely the movie reference with a smile means we are going to win. (I could be sitting on the winning ticket right now as I write this, incidentally.) An old man interrupted the transaction to buy an orange juice out of turn, but when you’re in the process of winning the lottery, little things like that just don’t get to you the same way they used to.

My sister said this dude we talked to outside the store, who also claimed the winning lottery ticket, was flirting with me. I didn’t see it. It’s entirely possible I didn’t see it because I was being stubbornly vain and not wearing my glasses so I would be extra pretty-ful. We’ll call it that and choose to believe my sister.

We made it back to the bookstore, the reading began, and us in the second row.

A comedian started it off. His spirit was incredible but he moved his shoulders up and down too much. Good spirit, bad body twitch. Gods bless him.

Up next a mentally challenged lady, probably the most badassed among us. She read a love poem to Roger and used a funny voice at some point. She lit up my eyes. She made presents for the featured readers. She made cookies for the rest of us. She had to leave early. She said she liked my feather, or my tattoo. Either way, when I got up to read after her, she made me feel like the millions of bucks I’m about to win.

Then it was me. Me and my “It’s my first time” button. I got extra applause for it being my first time and also because my sister and brother-in-law were sitting there, a well-dressed and enthusiastic entourage. “I’m going to do the Naked Hemingway Poem,” I said and launched in. “And the way he looks at you is obscene,” I said, leaning on the “obscene”, raising my eyebrows, and I knew I had it.

I wish I could write more about my turn, but it’s hard to describe something that went by in two seconds. I can tell you I made the slightest little bobble, but picked it up without panic. Not a stutter, just a sentence that I had to rearrange a little to get back on track. No one noticed, and not that “No one noticed” that means we’re too kind to tell you we all noticed, but that it fit in seamlessly.

I can tell you I kept my eyes open and moved my head around as if connecting with this groupie or that. I can tell you I held on to the mic the whole time which surprised me and, next time, I told myself, I won’t do that.

Then it was over and my sister was woo-ing for me. My sister wooed and got others to woo also. Big, big smile. I flounced, or at least I felt I flounced, off stage back to my seat and my teeth were so big in my smile that they might have been seen as a sign of aggression by primates.

The MC thanked me and told me to come back. He doesn’t say that to all the first-time readers of course (yes he does). He was only talking to me.

There were a lot of other readers then. The featured readers were wonderful. The magicians, the comedians, the musicians, “Baby won’t you call me Daddy one more time…” all wonderful. There was even a balloon animal guy. I got to be his assistant. He made a lovely little pink doggie while I held the banana string of a purple balloon he would use to make the next lovely little doggie… then attach the two… humping. Because it is near Valentine’s Day, you see. Romance was in the air.

You just don’t top that.

The hardcore stoners were well-represented. One’s poetry came from his cell phone and was totally decent. One was a bearded hipster, had no poem to read, but wanted to tell us all how rockin’ we were anyway—how much our awesomeness touched him. My secret was I was among them, only if even a little. By that time, just enough to keep my hands from shaking as I held the mic and did my little dance.

I ended up with the humping doggie balloon as a souvenir. I ended up with a fabulous memory. I ended up with a triumph to stick in my dusty cap. I ended up with the beginnings of finding my “tribe”, as my sister put it.

I ended up being, for the first time in a long time, myself.

I smoked two black clove cigarettes when we got home. I earned them. That night, I was the black cigarettes and body magic woman that I have always dreamed of being—that I thought I lost.

I smoked those two black cigarettes and swished my skirts in the moonlight, decompressing with my sister until two thirsty coyotes, a mother and a baby, started to make their way down the hill.

I slept well. I slept very well.

-M.

Elegy for My Empire, Prose

End of the Line Berdoo (memoir)

350px-SanbernardinostnYesterday, on the train, I saw all the ugliest parts of the cities from Berdoo to LA—the Route 66 cities luxuriating in their own decay. I saw the backs of sound walls all helpless against the graffiti, like a tender woman with a black eye someone tattooed over to shame her, permanently. I saw the trash glittering in the sunset—white against scrub and brown like pearls of waste and carelessness. I saw fire from a metal shop shooting up into the darkening sky. I turned my head. The fire turned my head.

I was jealous other cities had prettier stations than Berdoo does, that they had more healthy bike-riding young women and man, that their passengers stepped livelier, looked less like shopping cart ladies, sounded fresher, dressed fresher, came from places and were going to places where they didn’t know what it was like for us at all—we who dwell, and don’t work, and close our eyes, and listen for gunshots at the end of line.

-M.

Family, Memoir, Prose

Unaffectionate Boy (memoir)

Natanon was near the last one to deplane and make his weary way through the Roy Rogers airport. He met us by the empty spinning of the baggage carousel. His mother sent him to us from Thailand to finish his education in the States.

He was sent to us to get a little time with his dad.

He was dressed in black like a cowboy villain, but almost bald being only two weeks out from a stint as monk in his hometown of Phuket. His father and grandfather hugged him welcome. He smiled, but his shoulders were drawn up. He and I shook hands. He smiled again, but looked down at his shiny, square-toed shoes.

Later that day with the family, eating fast food Chinese— a mystery to him—he slid his cookie’s fortune across the greasy table for me to read to him, his English still a little weak. I read it low-voiced like a mystic and, as benediction, exclaimed, “…in bed!”

His English and teenage hormones were just strong enough to make him blush, drop his head and silent shake his drawn up shoulders down, with laughter.

-M.

Prose, Still Life Prose

Working Man (character piece)

Work, work—consumed by the work. And who could correct him? This was the creature his mother bore him to be. What would seem purgatory to the rest of us was his joy and satisfaction—building a palace of thought that would never be finished. No matter where he placed the lights, there was always a better place for them. There were always dark corners that needed to be lit.

-M

Prose, Still Life Prose

Tennessee Jazz in Autumn

I am reminded of a cool autumn night in Tennessee when I turned off the lights in my room, lit a single black candle smelling of the last anticipations of November, and turned on a gentle jazz album. I slipped into a slip of a nightie, black and silky. I set the candle on my windowsill, made a hot and heady drink, and crawled under the blankets. I opened the window to give myself a shiver of autumn on my bare shoulders. I sipped my drink with the jazz, watched the candle flame, and felt the familiar tingle of sex, but softly—foreplay with the beauty of my self, and the beauty of the night, the flame, the music, the heat and sweet on my tongue.

-M.

Prose, Writing Life

Galloping Mathilda (essay)

carthorseKeeping the horse before the cart, you would think, would almost happen naturally. After all, isn’t that where the horse is supposed to be? Isn’t that where her essence wills her to be?

But sometimes the natural yearning essence of the horse depends on its owner. My horse, her name is Mathilda, finds it far more natural and enjoyable to trot along behind the cart, sniffing the heather, watching the birds fly, dreaming of the far-distant future where there will be no carts at all, just a shady tree to lie under and lots and lots of lettuce to feed her and, occasionally, to roll around in in an obscene manner. The problem with Mathilda’s nature is that sooner or later the cart starts to roll downhill, and, as it is filled with countless heavy bushels full of tasks left undone, it careens faster and faster down that hill, forcing Mathilda to go from trot to canter to gallop to stumble to roll, until cart and horse and tasks and dreams end up in a crashed and broken heap.

Ah, nothing like a cheery blog to get you going in the morning!

The moral of the story is this, I have learned through hard experience and countless times digging myself out from under the rubble of crashed enterprises, to keep Mathilda up there leading the cart, all four hooves on the path, rocky though it may be sometimes. And ultimately she feels better in that spot, more purposeful and proud, and finds her time for dreaming on Sundays when the cart stops for restocking.

-M.

Prose, Writing On Writing

Gender Bias Among Women Writers (essay)

Hello. My name is Michelle… and I write like a man.

Usually when we speak of gender bias, the first thing that comes to mind is the literary feats of old dead white dudes still controlling the standards by which works of literature are measured today, regardless of the author’s race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Or we speak of the white guys who are still alive and kicking having an upper hand in getting grants, getting agents, getting published, getting attention, getting press, getting prizes, getting better grants, and round and round we go. But the gender bias I want to talk about is far more insidious. Those things I mentioned above certainly create a problem that should be addressed, but there is a pernicious undercurrent of another form of gender bias among writers that can potentially harm their efforts so early on, that they will never get past the very early stages of publishing, let alone into the realm of real recognition, regardless of the depth of their talent. This gender bias has directly to do with the quagmire of questions that are: What does and what does not make a woman? What does and what does not make a man?

When I was about twenty and learning to play the violin, still sounding an awful lot like a cat caught in the spin cycle, my Hungarian teacher pounded his fist on the table and exclaimed, “You bow like a man!” He meant it as a serious compliment, and I took it as such, having not yet learned I was supposed to be offended about stuff like that.

I kept that compliment in my pocket for rainy days as I slowly but surely became the writer everybody said I was going to end up being, regardless of my wishes to do anything artistic but that. (How deeply, deeply unglamorous is being a writer? Seriously?) So the first time a female poet, many, many, manyranks above me told me I write like a man, I was thrilled. I remember distinctly being in her office, smiling, puffing my chest out when she said it, then her following with, “That wasn’t a compliment.”

I was devastated.

She then went on to explain that because I wrote in direct sequence, in short lines, was incredibly devoted to punctuation, (total nerd, I know), and crazy about craft, I was writing in a manly fashion that clearly signified I was not in touch with my own femininity in a deeper way and, because of this, I would never produce real art as a woman, nor would I be truly accepted among other women writers.

I write as I write, and had never even considered there was some standard for woman-ness I was expected to meet lest my gender or the very soul of my gender be questioned.

I tried to brush her off as a cranky old so-and-so that was just jealous of my up-and-comer self and all that other b.s. we sell ourselves when our ego has taken a beating. But as I got more and more out into the world of reading, exposure, and publishing, I heard it again and again and again. My writing is too masculine. I write in straight lines. I am not emotionally centered so I am cold and mannish. It is mind-boggling.

And I started developing a complex thinking this was just me, but the more networking with other poets I did, I found several other women poets who had experienced the same thing. Again, being told that even though they were women, their work was not considered womanly enough that they be taken seriously as woman poets.

What kind of nonsense is that? What is this holy grail of literary womanhood we are supposed to be striving for? What does that even look like if not simply woman poet writes woman poetry?

Early on in college I took a literary theory class in which we studied French feminist literary theory. I hated it. I hated every last bit of it. And the bit I hated worst was this thing about how women, by virtue of their essence, write long, flowing lines and are naturally more concerned with their emotions and senses in part because they have erogenous zones everywhere.

Yes, really.

It’s something like: Sorry Muse, I can’t seem to write you an A to B to C poem today because somebody touched my elbow and got me all hot, made me cry, and doomed me to write in unpunctuated curlicues and unicorn shapes for at least the next eight hours, after which I plan on taking to my bed with the vapors. Why? Because I’m a woman and this is what other literary women tell me I must be and must do in order to be a proper literary woman.

Again, this is the kind of thing many women poets are bludgeoned with throughout their careers—trying to honor their own voices as women while suffering the disadvantages of not being a man in the literary world and, at same time, being told they are not womanly enough to fit in with the women.

Conform or be cast out! Write my way, or write rhyming billboards for the side of the highway!

In reacting to the male-dominated literary world, a good many women writers have created an equally exclusionary world of their own in direct opposition, which, as it is and maintains itself as direct, is actually being controlled by the dominant stream after all.

Woman poet writes woman poetry, regardless of her punctuation, the length of her lines, the centeredness of her emotions, or even the number of erogenous zones she has. Woman poet writes woman poetry. Woman poet writes women poetry. That is all.

-M.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I am a woman
and I write like one too.