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, 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, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Stuff and Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-M.

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

Baseball. Ellipsis.

Talk about a period where you have not read.

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

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

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

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

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

I could not finish the game.

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

New page.

Swing.

-M.

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

Perhaps I Should Stick to Writing

What have I carried and gnawed over?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He broke my world.

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

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

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

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, 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, 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.