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, 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, Memoir, Photography, Writing Life

Two Ouija Boards Under the Bed

Photo Prompt: What game are you playing in life? Learn the rules. Win the game.

Some people have monsters under their beds. Some people have shoes and extra blankets. Some people have porn. Some very lucky people have money. I have two Ouija boards—one made by my best friend—the beautiful one, board and friend—and one made by Hasbro—the glow-in-the-dark one, the one covered in dust and almost crushed by my ancient, broke-down box spring.

This is the game I am playing with life. I talk to spirits constantly. I’m sure they all put the Michelle-specific ear plugs in long ago. I have nightmares that are backwards prophecies. Life seems to be moving without me touching it—though really I must be touching it. I’m so white, I glow in the dark. The best parts of me were made by love.

Once, I wondered if sleeping with two Ouija boards under my bed was the reason I have nightmares every night, but then I realized only I can give them that power, and I only would give them that power if I moved them elsewhere in fear. I left them where they were and although I still have nightmares, I am winning this game.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Photography

The House Born Around Us

That my address happened to end up in my crotch in this my first attempt at arty photography is sheer Universal genius.

I was not born here. The house was born around my family when we moved to this city when I was four—the best part of all that happened when my parents got divorced.

Right after the divorce, my sister, mother, and I lived with my great aunt and uncle for a while and wore Goodwill clothes. Somehow, in less than a year, my mother was able to afford this house. Maybe it was all the money we saved wearing those Goodwill clothes that had that smell—the other people’s houses smell that must have dishearten my mother as we were between houses and, I know, humiliated my older sister who was sure she was really born royal and this town was all too bottom of the barrel for her. The smell seemed exotic to me and had a whisper to it, something like the ghosts of all the children who ate and played and sweat in these clothes before me.

My family continues to eat, play, and sweat in this house thirty-seven years later. It is now filled with our own ghostly whispers and we are sure to haunt it until the Big One knocks it down. It has been good to us and if all it cost was wearing good will on our backs for a year, it would have been a bargain at twice the price.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir

In All Fairness, Salmon Is Disgusting

My housemate had a thing for crazy bitches. In all fairness, I was good friends with his first crazy bitch. I knew her before I knew him. She was the one who invited me to live with them as a way to lower my rent. In all fairness to me, I didn’t know what a crazy bitch she was until a little more than a year after I moved in there and their relationship went south. When she moved out, she stole my bed—actually stole my bed. I wasn’t exaggerating when I called her a crazy bitch.

The girl he brought in after her was crazy in a quieter way. By quieter, I mean passive aggressive. Crazy passive. Crazy aggressive. She hated me from the start. I tried with her, but, in all fairness to us both, the feeling was pretty much mutual.

She was jealous of me and my relationship with my housemate, which was dumb. There was no attraction between us at all. But then, in all fairness, I don’t like my men having good friendships with women either and there is no telling if I would have handled that good friend woman living in the house any better than she did.

I had my shower curtain hanging in the bathroom. It was pretty. It was cream and pale blue and green. The hooks were brass. One morning, not long after the second crazy bitch moved in, I came out into the kitchen to find my shower curtain neatly folded on the kitchen table, hooks placed in an orderly pile on top, untangled. She had hung her own shower curtain—a lacy, diamond patterned thing with copper hooks—and mine was old news. She never said a word to me about it.

In all fairness, I never said a word about it to her either. I just picked up my curtain and placed it back in my moving boxes that were still not entirely unpacked even though I had lived there almost two years.

I am a good cook and my housemate said so. I’m sure she resented that. She made a spaghetti sauce once that he said, in so many words, was marginal. I took him aside and told him that probably hurt her feelings. I was still sort of not hating her at that point. He said he wasn’t going to tell her it was great when it wasn’t. I remember being disappointed in him for that.

But he raved about my cooking and, in light of the spaghetti sauce incident, I can see how that might have gotten under her skin. It made her cook more so she could be the one to occupy the kitchen instead of me. It made her try harder.

Once, she spent an eternity cooking salmon. Fancy fancy. She really worked at it and I give her credit for that.

Now, I can’t stand fish. I find it vile in every possible way. I got sick once gorging on fried shrimp as a kid and haven’t been able to stand a swimmy creature anywhere near my taste buds ever since. But I feel, in this respect, I am depriving myself. I think there is a whole culinary world I am missing out on—something other people seem to enjoy so very much.

“It tastes just like the ocean,” they say, and are in fits of delight.

“It tastes just like the ocean,” they say, and I think, “Barf. Who wants to eat the ocean?”

But on this day, when this crazy bitch cooked salmon and did such a fancy job of it, I was in one of those moods where I was feeling deprived of that highbrow culinary world, so I decided to give it a try. I resolved to eat it. I resolved to like it. I resolved to be the kind of person who eats and likes salmon and I looked forward to raving about her skills and maybe making up a little ground with her there.

As soon as the salmon hit my tongue, I gagged and spat it out. I couldn’t help it. It was a reflex. My whole body spasmed as if I had just tried to feed it a fish-smelling arsenic patty. It was a visceral, “No!”

My nose ran, my eyes teared up, and, with the soggy bite of salmon in the napkin and the napkin over my flushed face, I said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry. It’s not you. It’s the fish. I’m sure it’s perfect. I just… the fish. I’m so sorry.” And I ran off into the bathroom, sick and guilty. I tried my damndest not to be offensive, but, in all fairness, if I were her, I might have been offended. I think she was, and, I also think, at that very moment, she began to calculate.

Because get this:

A month or so later, she made a big deal about making a pasta salad for the house. Oh the effort she put into it! Oh her own kudos she sang! Oh the raves she raved about this famous dish of hers!

And when she was done, it looked delicious—cavatappi in a mayonnaise based sauce with all kinds of crunchy vegetables. I loomed over the bowl, ready to dig in, when she mentioned, offhand of course, that she was so glad to have found the right kind of crab to go in it.

Bitch.

I told her then that I couldn’t eat it because of the fish. She said something like, “Gee, really?” She had not forgotten the salmon incident. She had not forgiven the salmon incident.

I hope her petty revenge tasted like fish.

-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.