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, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Writing Exercises

Matchy Matchy on Anyone Else

At some point my mom stopped wearing closed-toed shoes. At some point she went entirely to sandals. California girl gives up on formality. In retirement, she retired fancy footwear. Men ditch the noose. My mom ditched confining shoes.

Hobnobbing with high powered lawyers over million dollar medical malpractice cases, her working life shoes were stunning—more for the sound they made than anything else. Strident strides. Authority on pavement come from the parking lot into the courthouse to win the day and withhold the money.

When my mom came to visit me for the first time in my first apartment as an adult, I heard her long before I saw her. She parked in the visitors’ lot, under my window, and clicked her way through the security gate somehow before I got down there to let her in. The gate yielded for her, or whoever was holding the gate, because of course it/he did.

She was wearing a pale yellow dress and her shoes matched. They matched the dress exactly. Her purse matched too. Matchy matchy on other people looks sickening. On my mother, matchy matchy looks like all is right in Heaven and Earth and nothing evil can touch you here. Her jewelry was gold. The stones in her jewelry were yellow topaz.

All is well. All is well. Heaven and Earth can rest.

She rearranged my apartment during that visit. She had gentle suggestions and the place got a major undoing and redoing. The couch went from the wall to the middle of the room creating a second space against the wall for my desk and piano. The artwork got frames and was properly hung, not puttied to the walls as it had been in my dorm room, my home before this one. Bad adolescent decorating habits carried over. She fixed that.

She bought a purple decorative pillow for my couch to match the purple in the decorative rug I had under my glass coffee table. She made sure my accidentally contemporary living room flowed seamlessly into my accidentally country bedroom. The purple flowed through from pillow to pillows. The floral arrangement on the dining table matched the flowers on my bedspread. The drapes, different colors but the same style, were made and hung by the same pair of hands.

When she left—when she clicked her way back through the gate and went back to my childhood home more than a thousand miles away to knock heads and pointed heels with lawyers who weren’t expecting so much trouble from a woman, I looked at my newly gorgeous apartment and cried. I missed my couch and everything else up against the wall because I didn’t know any better. I missed the curl of the art posters pulling away from their putty.

I missed her clicking more.

I kept my apartment the way she left it: objectively beautified. With only my soft sneakers to scuttle along the scuffed floorboards, the beautiful quiet was too quiet and would have been quieter had I reverted entirely to me. Emptier. Emptier and quiet.

-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.

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

Reality on Her Fingers

My dad, divorced from my mother for more than ten years at that point, told me that what she really loves is jewelry. She has the bling gene, as we call it. That’s not what he said. That’s a little too clever, a little too kind.

She loves costume jewelry, but has a grounding in the real. Always reality on her fingers. On her left hand, she always wears a blue topaz ring she had made. The topaz is set in a simple, modern swoop of solid gold. It’s meant to show off the stone, bold as a blue diamond. The way she wears it, you would swear it was a diamond.

On her right hand, she wears a ruby set in a cluster of diamonds. The ruby is her birthstone. It is pigeon blood red. It is the best you can get. She had this ring made too.

She wears a little silver ring I gave her. She wears a simple gold chain bracelet on her left wrist.

A touch of reality around her neck too. A shy diamond set in another modern swoop of gold, smaller, more delicate—a stylized teardrop. It sits against a black backdrop, created shadow. The diamond is from her mother’s engagement ring—her mother’s first engagement to my mother’s father.

They took that necklace off my mom when she went into the hospital so it wouldn’t interfere with the MRI. They took her rings and bracelet too.

She had to be in the hospital alone because of the virus. She was there a week. I called her every day, at least once a day. She told me many times about how they had taken her jewelry. She told me many times she was sure she would get it back. She had faith they were good, honest people, and that she would get her jewelry back even though she couldn’t quite remember where they had put it in her room. It seemed she thought about that more than she thought about her infection, her surgery, the second attempt at her surgery, and what life would be like after.

She recovered enough to come home. Once home, it took her another two weeks to recover enough physically and mentally even to want to put her jewelry on again.

She fished it out of her purse. It was all jumbled up in a green, semicircular plastic holder that looked like something you would put false teeth in. All that reality. All her reality. All those gems.

She put the topaz on first. This was what she earned—her badass career—the woman she was before retirement—the woman who made male lawyers quiver and go limp—the woman who could afford a topaz like that and all that swoop of gold.

She put her ruby on next. This was the woman she was born, badass in essence from the start. The little girl who chopped down an entire row of bird of paradise in front of her mother’s house because she didn’t like the way they looked at her when she got home from school. She planted snapdragons there instead. Their fierce little faces were sweeter.

The gold bracelet. She fastened that on herself. She bought it somewhere borderline seedy while on a Caribbean cruise—her first. First of many with a group of globetrotting women, badass as she was, exploring everything, planting their flags everywhere.

She needed help with the engagement diamond necklace. I tried for more than fifteen minutes and couldn’t get it. The clasp is so tiny, I wondered how she ever got it on in the first place as her well kept fingernails are long and lustrous and mine are bitten to the nubs. It should have been easier for me having my actual fingertips to work with, but it was impossible.

She sighed as I handed it back to her. She looked down. “I don’t like to be without it,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how easily the nurse took it off.”

Finally, she slid the little silver ring with the created pink gemstones I gave her for her birthday on to her little finger. The ring had turned black. Something they injected her with had burned her inside, leaked out of the injection site, run down her arm, and burned off whatever real silver there was on the ring. This was before the MRI. Before the box. Before she was bereft of everything. Before it was all protected.

That silver ring I gave her—the timid whisper that is my life’s contribution to hers, turned black in her illness—she wears it anyway. Right alongside her gold and precious. She wears it anyway.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Natively Unquiet

Tell me about silence.

If you threw the Empire State Building into a raging sea, no one would know the difference. Deepak Chopra said something like that, advocating for meditation. I bet the people of New York would know the difference–their skyline sadly quieter again.

But not silent.

There is no such thing. Like time and god, it’s something we conceptualize, track our lives by, aspire to. But there is always some sound. There is always some imperfection. Our own breath. Our own heartbeat. The mortal body regulating itself as it slowly, calmly perishes.

And that’s not a bad thing. Humans will never be gods and humans will also never know silence or be silent. We are the creatures we are, natively, and we are an unsubtle, noisy lot.

When I try to be silent, movies related to the logistics of eternity flicker across the insides of my eyelids. I’ve learned (sometimes) to watch and not participate, like seekers of silence and stillness are supposed to do, but even when the films are silent films, there is still the sound of the flickering, still the hum of electricity to projector that bolts through the physical brain. The slapstick of memory and trauma and dream and inspiration plays itself out and I laugh. As silent as I am, as unmoving as my belly and throat are–still there is the laugh.

That’s probably the foundational sound of the universe–the breath and heartbeat sound even she can’t get away from when she curves back into herself to resettle before birthing herself, from herself, again.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Personal Essay, Writing Exercises

Boys at the Window

What was outside your bedroom window?

(Doing this exercise from the phone today as our TV broke and my family has commandeered my iPad to watch Star Wars. A little weird, but I like it because I get to be lazy and lie in bed while I write. On to it.)

I’ve lived in three of the four bedrooms of the house I grew up in. I started at the end of the hall, moved across the hall to the front of the house, then back across the hall to the biggest of the little bedrooms, at last. When I lived in the bedroom at the front of the house, my window looked out on the walk, the lawn, the sidewalk, the streetlight that was supposed to be orange but was always broken, the street, the across-the-street neighbor’s house, and the across-the-street neighbor’s house’s front windows–their living room and a little square bedroom just like mine.

I slept with the head of my bed up against the window. I liked to look out through the blinds at night and contemplate the mysteries of junior high vis a vis the mysteries of the mostly empty street, an unhurried car passing once in a great while.

One night, my boyfriend and two of his friends came to the window. They whispered and laughed and sang and coaxed me out without permission. I think it might have been all of 10:00pm. We were doing what good kids walking the razor sharp line between good kids and slightly less good kids do. We thought we were stealing the world. It’s good we thought that.

Just now the thought: I have had romantic experiences in my lifetime after all, or at least this one–and the several times after that it also happened once they figured out I was so easily persuaded. Once they figured out I was just bad enough.

I came to expect them. I prepared myself for it. I dressed. I made sure my hair was ok, but not too ok. When my best friend came to my house for a sleepover, I made sure her clothes and hair were also ok, but not too ok. She was the best of the good kids. To her, we really were stealing the world. She looked afraid when I told her they would come. She went along anyway.

-M.

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

Exceptional Vehicles

Let’s talk about driving. What goes unnoticed? What do we take for granted?

All you people take driving for granted.

I can’t drive because I’m legally blind and it is one of the most horrible kinds of crippling, or at least I imagine it is. Having never been an independent driver, I wouldn’t know.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a notion to go somewhere and just go. Cold night, playing Freeze Out like my dad used to do with us girls in the car—all four windows down, whoever rolls theirs up last is the winner—but with only myself as competition. I’ve never had to keep myself awake with only myself and the double yellow lolling out endlessly before me in the dark dark desert between here and Las Vegas.

I don’t know what hitting 100mph is like on that same highway, in the middle of the night, when I’m sure the CHP isn’t watching.

Yellow line, lulling you to sleep. Blaring the radio to fight it, Botts’ dots rumbling your eyes open again. The danger. The responsibility. The irresponsibility. The win when you get there somehow, miraculously, safe.

I wish I could stand somewhere alone that I drove to alone that I decided to drive to alone, and that no one but me, alone, would know about it.

Freedom. A grass is greener freedom as my side of the fence is on foot or riding the bus or in a cab or mooching rides from patient friends.

It’s hard to be independent when your broader movements are, by necessity, dependent—when, at the very least, the bus driver is going to know where you came from, where you went, and, if you ride enough, most of what your story is.

I sound bitter.

I am a little bitter.

No one to blame but the DNA. I was born wing-clipped in Southern California. Apparently my genetic material never heard the song “Nobody Walks in LA,” or heard it and thought we would be the exception.

Special genes do make one exceptional.

I am exceptionally half-sighted. I am exceptionally good at scheduling my errands around my friends’ errands so I don’t trouble anybody too much.

I am exceptionally blessed with the gift of the gab and, by lack of automotive freedom, have gained masses of unlikely friends all over the country because of it. There is not much else to do when you’re stuck in transit together, breathing each other’s air, than to become compatriots.

Rwandan refugee cab drivers in Nashville—that ride share guy in DC who asked me what color palm trees are—the Uber lady whose dog just died yesterday—the bus driver who wouldn’t take my ticket without putting on gloves first (she was new and we weren’t virus-stricken yet)—the disability cabbie who brought his family along at eleven at night to pick me up from work, his wife sweetly piping up into the conversation from the back—the Pakistani guy who asked me to marry him—the Russian guy who also asked me to marry him—that other guy who asked me to use my employee discount to buy him a coffee pot “for church.”

I suppose all of these, in truth, are my own kind of exceptional vehicle and, once-in-a-while bilious drivers’ envy aside, my clipped-freedom grass is brilliant green because of them.

-M.

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

It Grows and Grows

Talk about disease.

It puts me ill at ease when my mom starts talking about my grandparents’ cancer—how they were dying at the same time, in hospital rooms next to each other. Lung cancer.

They smoked together. I’m sure he lit her cigarettes when they were dating. A sexy gesture. A sexy pull. Firsthand smoke to firsthand smoke. Breathing in each other’s breaths. Secondhand to secondhand. Thirdhand smoke in each other’s clothes. They breathed it in when they were dancing close.

Thirdhand smoke in their clothes still, even their clean clothes that my mother had to divvy up amongst relatives or donate after they passed. You never really can get rid of the smoke, the breath, the illness, the cancer. It grows and grows.

My mother’s marriage was falling apart as her parents were dying. My father was useless.

One day, after having worked a full day and spending most of the evening sitting at her parents’ bedsides, my mom came home to find that my father had put my sister and I to bed in our day clothes. She tells me he didn’t even bother to take our shoes off. That’s the part she couldn’t get over.

Unemployed and couldn’t be bothered to take our shoes off.

Unemployed and he would do the laundry at three in the morning with all the lights on in the house and Hank Williams roaring from the record player.

She wasn’t spending her evenings with him. He couldn’t throw a toddler’s tantrum, so he chose Hank Williams instead and, “You did say you wanted me to do the laundry, didn’t you?”

The cancer grew and grew.

My grandparents died and my mom got a divorce in the same year.

I once asked my mom if she was glad my grandparents weren’t around to see her get divorced. I asked her if there was some relief in it for her—in their passing. I don’t remember how she answered. I know she spoke, but all I really remember is the silence while she thought about it.

-M.

Family, Humor, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Life

Christmas Onions 2000

My first Christmas in my first apartment alone, trying to be a big time grownup. I made French onion soup for dinner. I called home to California earlier in the day. I had read a scripture, I told my mom, something about getting my house in order, and I felt I needed to do that, which involved me staying in Nashville for Christmas, again, alone. She wasn’t convinced, but because she couldn’t fly out and physically drag me home, she accepted it. 

I was trying to be so adult. I was trying to prove something, though, looking back, I can’t imagine what. Was I trying to prove that I could withstand severe holiday depression? Was I trying to prove that no matter how badly I wanted to off myself that season, I didn’t need my family to help me not become a statistic?

I called my Hungarian violin teacher after I called my family. He was a big part of my life then as music was a big part of my life. I also adored his stories of escaping communism. Communists used to make Hungarians eat diseased cow meat and chocolate made from blood. Zsolt was also disappointed I wasn’t coming home. He was put off by my choice of Christmas dinner. He said, “Well, maybe you could float an ornament in it and make it more Christmasy that way.” I laughed and felt lonelier by the minute.

God I was miserable then—a miserable sort of miserable that radiated in waves across the country from Nashville to my little city Berdoo.

I was new to keeping my own appliances then, just as I was new to keeping my own household in general. For example, while I had used a garbage disposal many times as a kid growing up, I somehow never learned that putting onion skins down one is not such a great idea. By the time I had all the onions in the Christmas soup pot sautéing with butter, beginning to oddly smell like apples, my garbage disposal was filled to brimming with onion skins. 

I ran the water and turned the disposal on. It growled like an offended demon and the water didn’t go down. It began to spit up chopped onion skins in great belches, making of the sink water a slimy, stinky soup of its own. I stopped the thing. “That was not bright,” I told myself.

I grudgingly lugged my plunger into the kitchen from the bathroom. In retrospect, it is amazing I had a plunger given that, when I first moved it, I hadn’t realized until I was in dire need that toilet paper doesn’t grow on the roll. 

I stuck the plunger to the drain and plunged for dear life. More and more onion skins belched forth from the disposal along with other unspeakable things most likely from tenants past. I sucked everything out that I could. 

The water still didn’t go down. The chopped onion skin and unnamable goo mocked me as it danced its spiral around the sink.

I ended up having to strain all that onion skin and other detritus out of the sink with my bare hand, letting the water slip through, but retaining the chunks that clung to my fingers. I pulled the trash can up next to me and went to town. I think a year might have gone by. 

The sink came clean, the water went down, and the garbage disposal growled happily, its gut no longer sick.

I washed my hands at least three times. I washed the plunger. I raised the plunger over my head and made He-Man muscles. 

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I proclaimed to my empty apartment.  

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I shouted again just in case the ghosts I lived with hadn’t heard. 

I lowered my plunger and shrugged my shoulders. Shoving the onion skins down the disposal was not the only terrible mistake I made that lonely Christmas. Not by a long shot.

Personal Essay

Wild and Considering a Haircut

My hair is gorgeous with platinum curls absolutely everywhere. It can also be the wildest white afro you’ve ever seen. There are frizzy parts and curly parts and parts beat straight from being slept on. When I wake up, I often look like Einstein in dire need of a haircut. 

It’s been getting on my nerves lately. It’s always in my face and sometimes even in my food. It gets caught in my purse strap. It gets under my watch band. It gets in my eyes. It gets in my mouth, even without being food-borne. 

Also, it’s hot under this thing. Seriously hot. I don’t need another reason to sweat and I sweat into this pelt all the time. 

The wildness, at times, is inconvenient, but I do love it. The problem has been that it can’t be wild without being in the way. Wildness is meant for the wilderness, not my civilized lips. 

A common symptom of depression among women is the desire to cut off all of one’s hair. I’ve dabbled in those thoughts many times, but my hair is my glory, like the Bible kinda says, and the Lord himself might weep if I got rid of it. 

I’ve decided to give it an out-of-my-face wilderness all its own.

I’ve decided on a pixie cut, even though I look nothing like a pixie in the face, or, ahem, in the body. I’m more like a bumble bee. I will give it the top of my head and the great heavens above to roam around and howl in. I will put some unnecessarily expensive crap in it after I shower, run my hands through, and let it go. If I’m going to look like Einstein anyway, I might as well not be a shabby one.

I have only a few requirements:

I want something undomesticated that doesn’t even look like it needs to be domesticated. 

I do not want to come out butch.

I do not want to look like a boy, (terrible experiences with that when my mom chopped all my hair off when I was little and every stranger called me a he.)

I don’t want ever to have to spend more than a few minutes styling it, but no styling at all would be preferable. 

Low maintenance baby. Low maintenance. I’m a low maintenance broad who needs a low maintenance do. (You’d think I would be able to type “maintenance” by now with no mistakes, but no. “Maintenance” is a lot higher maintenance than one might think.)

I love the look of wild, straight punk cuts, but I’ve got curly girl, curvy girl, girly girl written all over my scalp. We’ll get as wild as we can. We’ll get as far away from my watch band as we can. Wildness makes no promises.

-M.